The Origin of the Mesoamerican Model
By Edwin M. Woolley
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Subject: The Book of Mormon lands—“and the mystery is solved.”
We need not speculate about alternate theories or models concerning the general location of the New World lands of the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith Jr. himself made the matter clear in 1842. Since that time, the evidences supporting his statements have been vast and numerous. He must be looking down upon us from his exalted place in heaven and wondering, “What is there about Central America you don’t understand?” His comments are quite clear and straightforward concerning the matter. According to his remarks made in an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after identifying where the New World Book of Mormon lands are, he then says, “And the mystery is solved.” (“Extract from Stephen’s ‘Incidents of Travel in Central America,’” Times and Seasons, 3, no. 22, September 15, 1842, 914). We will examine this statement in its entirety later.
Joseph Shares Information Concerning the Nephites with His Family
Even before the gold plates came into his possession, Joseph had been privileged to see in vision the Nephites and Lamanites, their cities, animals, and way of life. Gathered around the fireplace in the evenings, Joseph took the opportunity to inform his family concerning details of the Book of Mormon people. Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother, tells us about these fireside chats: “During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.” (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956], 83)
Joseph Writes Four Articles Identifying Central America as the Book of Mormon Lands
The one most-qualified person to say with complete accuracy where the Nephites lived has to be Joseph Smith Jr. We should not then be surprised to learn that Joseph did just that. In the official Church publication, Times and Seasons, Joseph Smith informs members of the Church in four separate articles that the New World Book of Mormon lands are located in Central America. After publishing an extract from John Lloyd Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, beginning on page 911 of volume 3 of the Times and Seasons and ending on page 914, Joseph makes this revelatory statement: “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.” Joseph then quotes some Book of Mormon passages concerning Nephi teaching his people to build buildings, including a temple after the manner of Solomon’s temple. Then Joseph makes this statement: “Mr. Stephens’ great developments of antiquities are made bare to the eyes of all the people by reading the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. They lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found. Read the destruction of cities at the crucifixion of Christ, pages 459–60. Who could have dreamed that twelve years would have developed such incontrovertible testimony to the Book of Mormon? Surely the Lord worketh and none can hinder.” (Times and Seasons, September 15, 1842, 3:914–15)
A Historical Vignette
Learning of Stephens’s travels and exploration through Central America (the New World Book of Mormon lands) was, as Joseph mentioned, a great joy, and he seemed surprised when he said, according to my perspective, “Who could have dreamed that in only twelve years so much testimony of the Book of Mormon could have come to light?” This joyful information came to Joseph at a time when he was being hounded by his enemies. When the enemies seemed close, he went into hiding to avoid being falsely arrested. At these times of peril, Joseph stayed with various members, in as well as outside of Nauvoo, such as Edwin D. Woolley, John Taylor’s father, and others. He sometimes stayed on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River just minutes from Nauvoo. (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 7 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980], 5:89) He continued, however, to keep close contact with the Church, with his duties as editor of the Times and Seasons, and with his family and friends. (See B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930], 2:151)
Some who have not carefully read Church history have suggested that Joseph did not make the statements in the Times and Seasons identifying Central America as the New World Book of Mormon lands because he was in hiding. However, during this most important year, 1842, when so many things happened to shape the future of the Church, Joseph was never far from Nauvoo and his appointed tasks. On Sunday, August 14, 1842, we read in Joseph’s diary: “Spent the forenoon chiefly in conversation with Emma on various subjects, and in reading my history with her—both felt in good spirits and very cheerful. Wrote the following letter to Wilson Law.” In this letter, Joseph informed Brother Law, who is Major-General of the Nauvoo Legion, that Joseph wants to be kept informed on all the daily transactions: “P.S.—I want you to communicate all the information to me of all the transactions as they are going on daily, in writing, by the hands of my aides-de-camp.” (History of the Church, 5:94)
That Joseph spent his time in hiding in and near Nauvoo is obvious to the diligent reader of Church history. Notice what Joseph says in his diary entry of August 15, 1842: “About dark Brother Woolley returned from Carthage and stated that he had conversed with Chauncey Robinson, who informed him that he had ascertained that the sheriffs were determined to have me, and if they could not succeed themselves they would bring a force sufficient to search every house in the city, and if they could not find me there, they would search the state, &c. . . . As before stated, the sheriffs left the city, about four o’clock, saying they were going to Carthage, but Brother Woolley did not meet them on the road. It is believed they are gone to Quincy. . . .
“In consequence of these reports it was considered wisdom that some of the brethren should go and inform me. Accordingly about nine o’clock Hyrum Smith, George Miller, William Law, Amasa Lyman, John D. Parker, Newel K. Whitney and William Clayton started by different routes on foot and came to the place where I was. When the statement was made to me I proposed to leave the city, suspecting I was no longer safe, but upon hearing the whole statement from those present I said I should not leave my present retreat yet, I did not think I was discovered, neither did I think I was any more unsafe than before.” (History of the Church, 5:97) Clearly, based on this quote, Joseph was in hiding right in the city of Nauvoo. Emma’s visit mentioned above was at a member’s place, the home of Edward Sayers. (History of the Church, 5:92) Just to emphasize the point that Joseph’s hiding period in 1842 was not restricted to some outpost far removed from his home and Church affairs, consider just a few of dozens of entries from Joseph’s diary: “Wednesday, August 24—At home all day; received a visit from Brothers Newel K. Whitney and Isaac Morley. Friday, August 26—At home all day. In the evening, in council with some of the Twelve and others. Sunday, 28—At home, James Whitehead, Peter Melling, Tarleton Lewis, and Ezra Strong were received into the High Priests’ quorum at Nauvoo.”
On Monday, August 29, 1842, Joseph came out of hiding altogether: “Near the close of Hyrum’s remarks, I went upon the stand. I was rejoiced to look upon the Saints once more, whom I have not seen for about three weeks. They also were rejoiced to see me, and we all rejoiced together. My sudden appearance on the stand, under the circumstances which surrounded us, caused great animation and cheerfulness in the assembly. Some had supposed that I had gone to Washington, and some that I had gone to Europe, while some thought I was in the city; but whatever difference of opinion had prevailed on this point, we were now all filled with thanksgiving and rejoicing.” (History of the Church, 5:137)
By September of 1842, Joseph was out of hiding and was openly in charge of the affairs of the Church, including his responsibilities as managing editor of the Times and Seasons. He even received letters from Church leaders under the title of Editor of the Times and Seasons. (History of the Church, 5:161–62)
A Strange Book Supports Claims in the Book of Mormon
Late in the year of 1841, Joseph Smith received a very curious package at his door from an acquaintance of his, J. M. Bernhisel, who was living on the east coast of the United States. Bernhisel knew of Joseph’s claims about the Book of Mormon being a record of ancient civilizations that existed somewhere in the Americas. Bernhisel therefore knew that Joseph would be very interested in a new national best-selling book called Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan by American explorer John Lloyd Stephens (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1841). Joseph was so impressed with this book that a special notation of it was included in his diary: “Messrs. Stephens and Catherwood have succeeded in collecting in the interior of America a large amount of relics of the Nephites, or the ancient inhabitants of America treated of in the Book of Mormon, which relics have recently been landed in New York.” (History of the Church, 5:44) Notice how the entry states that the relics Stephens and Catherwood brought back are those of the Nephites.
Stephens’s Book Is Evidence Supporting the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon
The coming forth of Stephens’s book confirmed in Joseph Smith’s mind a promise that God had made to him that he would bring forth evidences of the Book of Mormon. Turning its pages, Joseph saw for the first time ruins of monuments and buildings of a highly civilized people, explored and recorded just the year before, in southern Mexico and Central America. The book and its drawings by Frederick Catherwood, the artist who accompanied Stephens, inspired Joseph to write the following: “If men, in their researches into the history of this country, in noticing the mounds, fortifications, statues, architecture, implements of war, of husbandry, and ornaments of silver, brass, &c.—were to examine the Book of Mormon, their conjectures would be removed, and their opinions altered; uncertainty and doubt would be changed into certainty and facts; and they would find that those things that they are anxiously prying into were matters of history, unfolded in that book. They would find their conjectures were more than realized—that a great and a mighty people had inhabited this continent—that the arts sciences and religion, had prevailed to a very great extent, and that there was as great and mighty cities on this continent as on the continent of Asia. Babylon, Ninevah, nor any of the ruins of the Levant could boast of more perfect sculpture, better architectural designs, and more imperishable ruins, than what are found on this continent. Stephens and Catherwood’s researches in Central America abundantly testify of this thing. The stupendous ruins, the elegant sculpture, and the magnificence of the ruins of Guatemala, and other cities, corroborate this statement, and show that a great and mighty people—men of great minds, clear intellect, bright genius, and comprehensive designs inhabited this continent. Their ruins speak of their greatness; the Book of Mormon unfolds their history. –ED.” (Times and Seasons, July 15, 1842, 860)
Joseph Becomes Editor of the Times and Seasons, March 15, 1842
Not long after Joseph received the book by John Lloyd Stephens, several articles appeared in the Church publication, the Times and Seasons. The first is quoted above. These articles were written and approved by Joseph Smith, and we know he was responsible because he took full credit for the content. Consider the following quote signed by Joseph Smith. It appeared in the Times and Seasons just four months before Joseph mentions Stephens and Catherwood’s research in Central America:
“TO SUBSCRIBERS. This paper commences my editorial career, I alone stand responsible for it, and shall do for all papers having my signature henceforward. I am not responsible for the publication, or arrangement of the former paper; the matter did not come under my supervision. JOSEPH SMITH.” (Times and Seasons, March 15, 1842, 3:9)
Joseph’s Second Article That Recognizes Central America as the Book of Mormon Lands
Joseph’s second quote included an extract designed to present the recent findings of Stephens’s explorations and was published in the September 15, 1842, edition of the Times and Seasons. (See the complete quote minus the extract earlier in this article.)
Facts Are Stubborn Things
The third article mentioning Central America begins with the provoking title, “Facts Are Stubborn Things.” In the article, Joseph says: “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 . . . [that] we cannot but think the Lord has a hand in bringing to pass his a strange act, and proving the Book of Mormon true in the eyes of all the people. . . . It will be as it ever has been, the world will prove Joseph Smith a true prophet by circumstantial evidence.” (Times and Seasons, September 15, 1842, 3:921–22) This statement also appears in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith by Joseph Fielding Smith. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1968], 266–67) Obviously Joseph Fielding Smith, a respected Church historian and prophetic leader, credits these comments to Joseph Smith.
Joseph Writes Yet Another Article on the Subject
Apparently, the third article made enough of a stir to warrant a follow-up article only fifteen days later. Immediately preceding Joseph’s final publication on this subject, we find this statement “signed” by Joseph Smith:
The Times and Seasons,
Is edited, printed and published about the first
Fifteenth of every month, on the corner
Of Water and Bain Streets, Nauvoo,
This notice should leave no doubt—even in the minds of the most skeptical among us—that Joseph was indeed responsible for the content of the next Times and Seasons article.
This notice should leave no doubt—even in the minds of the most skeptical among us—that Joseph was indeed responsible for the content of the next Times and Seasons article.
The fourth and last article on this subject is entitled “Truth will prevail.” In it, Joseph says the following:
“Since our ‘Extract’ was published from Mr. Stephens’ ‘Incidents of Travel,’ &c., we have found another important fact relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon. Central America, or Guatimala, 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: and that a large stone with engravings upon it, as Mosiah said; and a ‘large round stone, with the sides sculptured in hieroglyphics,’ as Mr. Stephen has published, is also among the left remembrances of the, (to him,) lost and unknown. We are not agoing to declare positively that the ruins of Quiriqua 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 desciples 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 may seem hard for unbelievers in the mighty works of God, to give credit to such a miraculous preservation of the remains, ruins, records, and reminiscences of a branch of the house of Israel: but the elements are eternal and intelligence is eternal, and God is eternal, so that the very hairs of our heads are all numbered. It may be said of man he was and is, and is not; and of his works the same, but the Lord was and is, and is to come and his works never end; and he will bring ever thing into judgment whether it be good, or whether it be evil; yea, every secret thing, and they shall be revealed upon the house tops. 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, and so we make another extract.” (Times and Seasons, October 1, 1842, 3:927)
Joseph’s Editorial Responsibility for the Times and Seasons Is Concluded
Joseph’s responsibility as managing editor of the Times and Seasons came to an end with the conclusion of volume 3. We find the following statement by him on November 1, 1842, at the beginning of volume 4: “I beg leave to inform the subscribers of the Times and Seasons that it is impossible for me to fulfil the arduous duties of the editorial department any longer. The multiplicity of other business that daily devolves upon me, renders it in possible for me to do justice to a paper so widely circulated as the Times and Seasons. I have appointed Elder John Taylor, who is less encumbered and fully competent to assume the responsibilities of that office, and I doubt not but that he will give satisfaction to the patrons of the paper. As this number commences a new volume, it also commences his editorial career. JOSEPH SMITH.” (Times and Seasons, November 1, 1842, 4:8)
Joseph tells us both when his responsibility as editor of the Times and Seasons began (March 15, 1842) and ended (November 15, 1842). All statements in question occurred between July through October 15, 1842, during Joseph’s tenure. This again supports the fact that Joseph was indeed responsible for these identifying quotations discussed above.
It must have been with eagerness and anticipation that Joseph thumbed through the pages of Stephens’s book and, upon seeing Catherwood’s illustrations, obviously recognized them as familiar. Joseph Smith, publisher of an account of mighty and ancient civilizations, was seeing for the first time direct evidence that such civilizations did exist in the ancient Americas. No doubt his excitement must have been extremely high as he read Stephens’s book.
What is for certain is that Joseph Smith saw Book of Mormon cities and civilizations. He alone knew exactly what they looked like. When he received Stephens’s book that brought to the knowledge of the world details about Mayan ruins, a light bulb turned on in Joseph’s mind. Joseph must have said to himself, “I’ve seen these kinds of ruins before, in vision!”
It is not surprising, then, that Joseph Smith said what he did in his diary and in the Times and Seasons. After all, he had only three ruins to choose from. The thousands of ruined settlements in the Mayan areas were undiscovered during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. Joseph claimed that he couldn’t say for sure if Quirigua was Zarahemla, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to compare that site with Book of Mormon cities. The style similarities were evident. He had seen these styles before—but not in John Lloyd Stephens’s book. He had seen them through a more advanced means; he had seen them through the ultimate technology: God’s visions.
The evidence that Joseph Smith was the author of the Times and Seasons articles aforementioned affords so much proof that even the most credulous cannot doubt. So what do we do with this information?
If anyone has the authority to identify Book of Mormon lands and locations, it is Joseph Smith Jr. He alone translated the Book of Mormon. He alone personally met and conversed with its deceased authors, now messengers from heaven. He alone saw Book of Mormon cities and civilizations in vision. He alone was ultimately qualified for the accurate identification of Book of Mormon lands. Thus, the only solution to this matter is to go directly to the source: Joseph Smith Jr., translator of the Book of Mormon. He said it this way: “And the mystery is solved.” (Times and Seasons, September 15, 1842, 3:914)
President John Taylor Speaks Out on the Subject of the Book of Mormon Lands
Just for the record, Joseph Smith was not the only Latter-day Saint President to identify Central America as the heartland of the Book of Mormon. The following statement was given in 1882 by John Taylor, the prophet, seer, and revelator at the time: “The story of the life of the Mexican divinity, Quetzalcoatl, closely resembles that of the Savior, so closely, indeed, that we can come to no other conclusion than that Quetzalcoatl and Christ are the same being.” (John Taylor, Mediation and Atonement [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Publishing, 1882], 201–3) The Quetzalcoatl legends are found exclusively among the native people of Mesoamerica, and so we can come to no other conclusion than that Christ’s appearance to the Nephites, as told in 3 Nephi, was in Central America. Among modern scholars, Central America has in recent years become known as Mesoamerica.
A Third Witness Speaks Out on the Subject
Apostle Moses Thatcher was ordained an Apostle on April 9, 1879, by John Taylor. Later that same year, Elder Thatcher opened the first mission in Mexico. He made the following statement at an official function while speaking to the youth in Ogden, Utah: “I wish to add something concerning that which was spoken of this morning on the life of Nephi; not so much of his life and character, as that of the people whom he led, their ruins, their buildings and temples as found in Central America and Mexico.” (Moses Thatcher, “Ancient American Civilizations and Their Lessons,” Y.M.M.I.A. meeting held in Ogden, Utah, November 11, 1888)
There we have it—three credible witnesses for the Book of Mormon lands being in Central America/Mesoamerica. The scriptures say, “But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” (Matthew 18:16; also see 2 Corinthians 13:1; Ether 5:4; D&C 6:28; 128:3) It is time for the honest in heart to accept the truth about the New World Book of Mormon lands and move forward from there.