“Burned with Fire”: Destruction by Fire of AD 34 Book of Mormon Cities
According to Rodney Meldrum, “[If we’re looking for the lands of the Book of Mormon,] we should be looking for towns and cities made out of wood—according to the Book of Mormon.” Through such wording and thinking, the authors of the Heartland Model for New World Book of Mormon geography attempt to convince their listeners and readers that all New World events of the Book of Mormon occurred in the continental United States between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. In teaching that the Book of Mormon could not have taken place in Mesoamerica because cities there were constructed of stone that could not burn, Wayne May, Rodney Meldrum, and Bruce Porter—in support of their Heartland Model—exhibit ignorance about Mesoamerica’s architecture, archaeology, and history What are the archaeological and historical facts about the construction and burning of cities in Mesoamerica—the logical candidate for the New World setting of the Book of Mormon?
At the time of the crucifixion of Christ in the Old World, a “great and terrible destruction” took place in the New World in both the land southward and the land northward (see 3 Nephi 8:11–12). Associated with the crucifixion, many cities were destroyed by one destructive force or another—including fire. Interestingly, in translating the reformed Egyptian characters into English, Joseph Smith on several occasions did not merely translate to the effect that a city was burned; rather, the translation came out as “burned with fire.” For example:
· Behold, that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof. (3 Nephi 9:3; emphasis added)
· And behold, that great city Jacobugath, which was inhabited by the people of king Jacob, have I caused to be burned with fire because of their sins and their wickedness, which was above all the wickedness of the whole earth, because of their secret murders and combinations; for it was they that did destroy the peace of my people and the government of the land; therefore I did cause them to be burned, to destroy them from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints should not come up unto me any more against them. (3 Nephi 9:9; emphasis added)
· And behold, the city of Laman, and the city of Josh, and the city of Gad, and the city of Kishkumen, have I caused to be burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof, because of their wickedness in casting out the prophets, and stoning those whom I did send to declare unto them concerning their wickedness and their abominations. (3 Nephi 9:10; emphasis added)
Readers might naturally wonder why “burned with fire” is used in the translations rather than just “burned” or “destroyed by fire.” Can a city “burn” by any means other than by fire? The answer to that question is probably found in the complete connotation of the particular multiple-symbol reformed Egyptian characters that required “burned with fire” as a complete depiction or connotation of that particular destruction.
Joseph Smith probably went through some of the same translation issues in translating the reformed Egyptian characters on the golden plates that modern-day Mesoamerican epigraphers have faced in learning to translate the Maya hieroglyphs from Mesoamerica. The epigraphers can now read about 90 percent of the Maya glyphs, and they are inevitably very impressed with the precise connotations the Maya writers could include in a glyph. As Linda Schele and David Freidel say, “The Maya writing system used to record [the Maya’s] ancient history was a rich and expressive script, capable of faithfully recording every nuance of sound, meaning, and grammatical structure in the writers’ language.”1 In a similar vein, “burned with fire” could be the literal meaning conveyed by the reformed Egyptian characters that Joseph Smith translated in several instances.
“Burned with fire” might never have surfaced as a unique outcome of the translation process if Rodney Meldrum had not attempted to use the burning of cities as a means of “proving” that the New World setting for the Book of Mormon could not have been in Mesoamerica.2 According to Wayne May, Rodney Meldrum, and Bruce Porter’s Heartland Model for the New World setting of the Book of Mormon, all New World events of the Book of Mormon took place in the continental United States, ranging from the Great Lakes on the north to the Gulf of Mexico on the south.3 Further, according to Meldrum, the New World setting for the Book of Mormon could not have been in Mesoamerica because the cities there were constructed with stone that could not have burned during the AD 34 “great and terrible destruction.”
According to Meldrum:
What was the primary building material used in the Book of Mormon? Because you see the cities down in Central America primarily are made out of what? Stone. Okay, but what was the Book of Mormon material? The primary material was wood. Clear back in 569 BC, Nephi says, “And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance” (2 Nephi 5:15).
And then toward the end of the Book of Mormon, forty-six years before Christ (I just love this scripture; it is fantastic), it says, “And the people who were in the land northward did dwell in tents, and in houses of cement, and they did suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land that it should grow up, that in time they might have timber to build their houses, yea, their cities, and their temples, and their synagogues, and their sanctuaries, and all manner of their buildings. And it came to pass as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, they did send forth much by the way of shipping. And thus they did enable the people in the land northward that they might build many cities, both of wood and of cement” (Helaman 3:9–11).
It is extremely clear from this scripture that they used wood. And if we’re looking for temples made out of stone, then we’re looking for the wrong kind of temples because these temples were made from timber.
What was the most dramatic example you can think of in the Book of Mormon for a big structure—like these pyramids and so forth down in Central America? Who can think of the biggest structure you can think of? What would it be? All right—King Noah. I came up with that as well: “And it came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper; And he also built him a spacious palace, and a throne in the midst thereof, all of which was of fine wood and was ornamented with gold and silver and with precious things. And he also caused that his workmen should work all manner of fine work within the walls of the temple, of fine wood, and of copper, and of brass” (Mosiah 11:8–10).
He ornamented them with fine work of wood; he ornamented them that way. But it also says that he built a spacious palace. This is the only time I can think of in the Book of Mormon where it specifically mentions a palace—a big building—all of wood, of fine wood. So the biggest structure mentioned in the Book of Mormon is not stone—it is wood.
What about stone then? Does it mention stone as a building material? Well it turns out that, yes, it does actually talk about stone as a building material: “Yea, he had been strengthening the armies of the Nephites, and erecting small forts, or places of resort; throwing up banks of earth round about to enclose his armies, and also building walls of stone to encircle them about, round about their cities and the borders of their lands; yea, all round about the land” (Alma 48:8).
So they built walls out of stone. It never says that they built homes or any temples or any other kinds of structures out of stone. They were all built out of wood. They had some walls that were built out of stone. And sure enough, you look at Hopewell Ruins, USA: Wall of Warriors and [see] an ancient stone wall right where Joseph Smith said it would be.
[Here is a] Hopewell dwelling. . . . This is what they think it might have looked like. They kind of made it look like that. They put mud on the outside and so forth. Now if this were a Nephite city made out of wood, what would be the easiest way to destroy it? All right, exactly—fire. So are there any indications in the Book of Mormon itself for cities being burned with fire?
Sure enough, there are: “And the city of Zarahemla did take fire” (3 Nephi 8:8); “And behold, that great city Jacobugath . . . have I caused to be burned with fire. . . . And behold, the city of Laman, and the city of Josh, and the city of Gad, and the city of Kishkumen, have I caused to be burned with fire” (3 Nephi 9:9–10); “And it came to pass that Shiz pursued after Coriantumr, and he did overthrow many cities, and he did slay both women and children, and he did burn the cities” (Ether 14:17); “And it came to pass that whatsoever lands we had passed by, and the inhabitants thereof were not gathered in, were destroyed by the Lamanites, and their towns, and villages, and cities were burned with fire” (Mormon 5:5).
Brothers and sisters, [if we’re looking for the lands of the Book of Mormon,] we should be looking for towns and cities made out of wood—according to the Book of Mormon.4
In making the above comments on his DVD and in his oral presentations, Meldrum carefully and deceptively plants in the minds of his listeners the following incorrect interpretations of Book of Mormon scriptures:
· Book of Mormon buildings and cities were constructed out of wood rather than out of stone.
· Stone buildings and cities cannot burn; therefore, the stone-constructed ruins of Mesoamerica cannot be Book of Mormon buildings and cities.
· Buildings and cities constructed with wood can burn; therefore, the buildings and cities of the Hopewell and Adena cultures of the United States are the buildings and cities of the Book of Mormon peoples.
· The New World setting for the Book of Mormon cannot be in Mesoamerica because the buildings and cities there are constructed of stone.
· The New World setting for the Book of Mormon is reflected in the Heartland Model of Wayne May, Rodney Meldrum, and Bruce Porter; all New World events of the Book of Mormon took place in the continental United States between the Great Lakes on the north and the Gulf of Mexico on the south.
Anyone who has looked at pictures of many of the city-center archaeological sites in Mesoamerica is aware that most of the extant buildings in the pictures are made of stone. But stone was not the primary construction material in some city centers. For example, stone-constructed structures were largely unknown at Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala, the logical candidate for the city of Nephi in the land southward. The same is true of structures in the central depression of Chiapas, the logical location for the city of Zarahemla in the land southward. In addition, structures on top of the platforms of pyramids and other city-center structures were typically constructed of perishable materials. And in the area of Mesoamerica that is associated with the time period of the Nephites and Lamanites, Sharer points out how structures other than houses of the commoners were made of perishable materials: “Owing to the scarcity of suitable, easily worked building stone, even the largest and most elaborate southern Maya buildings were usually constructed of perishable materials, such as pole and thatch, wood, or adobe blocks.”5
But more damaging to Meldrum’s reasoning that the “stone cities of Central America” could not burn is the fact that the residences of the common people were constructed out of perishable materials that could burn. In these respects, Carlos Margain says the following:
The best-known examples of Mesoamerican architecture are spectacular constructions, and . . . almost all were designed for religious ceremonial purposes. Structures in residential zones show the same technical and aesthetic problems and solutions, but, on the whole, buildings dedicated to the gods are monumental; those dedicated to the governing elite are of human scale.
Of the common habitations we know very little. The few studies focused on this point deduce that they were constructed largely of perishable materials such as straw, adobe, wood, or cane. From investigations of modern houses in central Mexico, Yucatan, and Guatemala, we believe that the common pre-Hispanic dwelling in Mesoamerica did not differ much from that which exists today.6
Robert Sharer and Loa Traxler confirm those comments as follows:
A typical Maya house today is little changed from ancient times—an oblong or rectangular structure of one or two rooms with stone or adobe walls roofed by pole and thatch, or entirely of pole and thatch or wattle and daub. . . . At the other end of the ancient Maya social spectrum are elaborate masonry residences occupied by elite families, often called “palaces” to distinguish them from nonelite residences.7
Speaking of the residences of nonroyalty Maya people, Sharer and Traxler further say, “Compared to the masonry palaces of Maya kings, the houses of the nonelite were built mostly of perishable materials and have all but vanished.”8 In that respect, Sharer says: “Throughout the Maya area the remains of most domestic buildings indicate that they were constructed in the same manner as are contemporary Maya houses. Typically, a pole framework supports a thatched roof; walls are usually wattle and daub, a woven lattice of sticks plastered with a thick coating of adobe (mud mixed with straw or other binder). In the hottest regions, house walls are often unplastered, allowing the passage of cooling breezes. More substantial houses may have foundations of stone, or rough stone walls smoothed with plaster.”9 And Alberto Ruz summarizes archaeological findings about Maya housing in Mesoamerica as follows:
It is indispensable to stress the difference that existed between the homes of the lords (the priests, civil heads, and rulers in general) and those of the common people. Landa describes this difference in detail when he states that “where they settled they always were accustomed to build again their temples, sanctuaries, and houses in their manner for the lords, while the common people had only used homes from wood covered with straw.” Archaeology has confirmed this and given the name of “palaces” to the buildings which were probably the residences of the ruling class and which can be clearly distinguished in the ceremonial centers from the buildings dedicated to religious worship (temples, portable altars, platforms for dances or ceremonies, etc.). . . .
Lime and stone [were used] for the houses of the lords, “painted with much elegance,” as Landa describes, and wood with straw roofs for the homes of the common people. . . .
The homes of the common people were “of wood covered with straw,” that is to say, huts similar to those we know today in the entire Mayan area as the abodes of the peasants.10
Some readers have visited or looked at pictures of Teotihuacan, which is not far from Mexico City. Teotihuacan is the logical location for the “land which was northward” in the land northward. In looking at pictures of Teotihuacan or in visiting the site, readers will naturally be inclined to think of a stone city that could not burn—at least according to Meldrum’s contentions. However, Teotihuacan was destroyed by fire around AD 650.11 Speaking of that occasion, Richard E. W. Adams says:
The favorite building technique at Teotihuacan was a kind of pudding made of chunks of porous volcanic stone (tezontle) set in a matrix of clay, gravel, and mortar. Walls, ceilings, and floors were covered with heavy coats of plaster and finished by polishing, which made them both attractively glossy and impermeable. Large amounts of wood were used to construct roof beams, vertical supports within walls, centers for masonry pillars, and door lintels. Huge tree trunks were incorporated into platforms to transmit weight to the ground. It has been suggested that deforestation probably resulted and led to erosion of agricultural lands. At first sight then, Teotihuacan architecture might seem concrete enough to satisfy the most demanding fire marshal, but it concealed highly flammable textiles, wood, feathers, and mats in the buildings, and the fire rating would probably have been very high. The fire hazards were similar to those at Casas Grandes, where a fierce conflagration also incinerated the town. When Teotihuacan was finally destroyed, an enormous fire left a blanket of ash and debris that is found nearly anywhere one excavates in the central zone.12
In summary, Rodney Meldrum contends that the New World events of the Book of Mormon could not have taken place in Mesoamerica because (1) the archaeological cities there are made of stone and (2) stone cities cannot burn. He further contends that these facts support the New World setting for the book of Mormon among the Hopewell and Adena cultures of the heartland of the continental United States. Two observations seem relevant:
First, nothing in the Book of Mormon precludes the use of stone for the construction of Book of Mormon cities. That is, simply because Mormon does not say something like “We built our cities out of stone” does not mean that Book of Mormon cities were not built with stone. On the contrary, Book of Mormon readers should normally expect stone construction in light of the Book of Mormon language associated with the high civilization of the Jaredites on one hand and the high civilization of the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites on the other.
For example, in bringing the Jaredites to the New World, the Lord told them, “There shall be none greater than the nation which I will raise up unto me of thy seed, upon all the face of the earth” (Ether 1:43; emphasis added). Associated with his Heartland Model as the New World setting for the Book of Mormon, Meldrum simply cannot show evidence around the Great Lakes that a civilization once existed there that was greater than any other civilization during the Jaredite time period. However, that evidence is available in Mesoamerica and clearly points to the Olmec civilization that thrived to the west of, on the north side, and northward of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico—a civilization that used stone in the construction of its cities.
In respect to the high civilization of the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites, somewhere around 90 percent of the population centers that were in existence during the Book of Mormon time period are located in Mesoamerica.13 Most of those population centers involved city centers with stone-constructed structures. In the first century BC, Mormon notes that “the people began to be very numerous, and began to scatter abroad upon the face of the earth, yea, on the north and on the south, on the east and on the west, building large cities and villages in all quarters of the land” (Mosiah 27:6; emphasis added).
That language is similar to that found in reports dealing with population densities among the Maya, such as in the Maya lowlands, the logical location of the east wilderness of the Book of Mormon. By the eighth century AD, for example, an estimated ten million people resided in the Maya lowlands. “Settlements around centers like Tikal reached population densities of up to 2,600 people per square mile. That’s more than half the population density of modern-day New York City. The landscape was an almost unbroken fabric of intensely cultivated farms, gardens, and villages, linked by a web of trails and . . . paved causeways connecting monumental city-states.”14 These “monumental city-states” typically involved city centers containing buildings made of stone—a natural outcome to be expected after a careful reading of the Book of Mormon.
Second, stone-constructed buildings in Mesoamerica were typically restricted to city centers and did not involve the domiciles of the masses of the people—historical facts that are overlooked by Meldrum. The houses of the commoners were very susceptible to destruction by fire. Further, many of the structures in the midst of the city centers were susceptible to destruction by fire. Thus, when Book of Mormon readers note that cities were “burned by fire,” they can rest assured that those cities could indeed be the “stone cities” of Mesoamerica alluded to by Meldrum.
Rather than select a predetermined piece of real estate and then try to force it to fit the geography of the Book of Mormon as Meldrum and his associates have done, they could more validly have begun with critical criteria for identifying the New World setting for the Book of Mormon and then attempt to locate the specific New World geographic setting that matches those criteria. Defensible critical criteria derived from a careful reading of the Book of Mormon are the following:
1. The area must show evidence of a high-level written language that was in use during the Book of Mormon time period for the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites.
2. The area must reflect two high civilizations that show extensive evidence of major population centers, continual shifts in population demographics, extensive trading among the cultures, and almost constant warfare among the inhabitants—in harmony with the dates given in the Book of Mormon.
3. The archaeological dating of the proposed area must reflect thorough analyses of sites and artifacts with resulting radiocarbon dates that agree with the dates given in the Book of Mormon.
4. The historical evidence from the area must provide valid findings that dovetail with the customs and traditions associated with the peoples and dates of the Book of Mormon.
5. The geographic configuration of the area must resemble an hourglass as a reflection of two land masses and a narrow neck of land (an isthmus) dividing the two. The hourglass must be on its side in a horizontal position to justify the Nephite cardinal directions of “northward” and “southward” associated with the two land masses.
Obviously, Rodney Meldrum, Wayne May, and Bruce Porter’s Heartland Model as the New World setting for the Book of Mormon does not meet those criteria. Therefore, Book of Mormon readers who are trying to deal with geography issues in the Book of Mormon can legitimately look for “stone cities” that were fully capable of being “burned with fire.”
1. Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990), 50; emphasis added.
2. Rodney Meldrum, DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography: New Scientific Support for the Truthfulness of the Book of Mormon; Correlation and Verification through DNA, Prophetic, Scriptural, Historical, Climatological, Archaeological, Social, and Cultural Evidence (n.p.: Rodney Meldrum, 2008), section 11, “Nephite Structures.”
3. Wayne N. May, Rod Meldrum, and Bruce Porter, Book of Mormon Evidences in North America (n.p.: Foundation for Indigenous Research and Mormonism, 2009), 22–23.
4. Meldrum, DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography, section 11, “Nephite Structures.”
5. Robert J. Sharer, The Ancient Maya, 5th ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 631.
6. Carlos R. Margain, “Pre-Columbian Architecture of Central Mexico,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 10, Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1971), 90.
7. Robert J. Sharer with Loa P. Traxler, The Ancient Maya, 6th ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 677.
8. Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, 97.
9. Sharer, The Ancient Maya, 631.
10. Alberto Ruz, The Mayas (Mexico, DF: Salvat Mexicana de Ediciones, 1988), 101–5. Ruz cites Bishop Diego de Landa from Landa’s Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan.
11. Stephan F. De Borhegyi, “Archaeological Synthesis of the Guatemalan Highlands,” Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica, volume two of the Handbook of Middle American Indians (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1965), 38.
12. Richard E. W. Adams, Prehistoric Mesoamerica, 3rd ed. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005), 223; emphasis added.
13. Joseph Lovell Allen and Blake Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Orem, UT: Book of Mormon Tours and Research Institute, 2008), 16.