American Exceptionalism and Book of Mormon Geography
Most reading this article already know who I am. Others may not. I'll sum it up in three words: Tennis Shoes guy. I'm the fiction novelist who was lucky enough to take a common device in modern storytelling—time travel—and be the first novelist to apply it to the Book of Mormon. "Lucky" is very much how I would describe it. I feel extremely fortunate that this phenomenon has paid my bills for the past twenty years. I'm also convinced that if I hadn't done it, someone else would have.
It all began with something that a few might consider rather corny—a dream that I had on my mission while serving in Gainesville, Florida. Obviously I didn't dream the whole plot of the book. Just the basic concept, which included modern characters rubbing shoulders with the heroes of the Book of Mormon and a cave that I had explored as a kid near Cody, Wyoming. So after arriving home from my mission I spent two or three years fleshing it out, went into a period of intense procrastination, not certain if I wanted to be a writer or exactly what specific career in the arts I wanted to pursue. Then I listened to a General Conference address given by the Ezra Taft Benson in Oct. of 1988 wherein he urged Latter-day Saints to "flood the earth" with the Book of Mormon and further stated, "I have a vision of artists putting into film, drama, literature, music, and paintings great themes and great characters from the Book of Mormon." (Ezra Taft Benson, Oct Gen. Conference, 1988.)
I don't want to get carried away with that sentiment. I'm not sure if I can use that quote to justify my creative exploits in life or not. But I do know that hearing that talk urged me to get off my hind end and finish my manuscript—a book which was later titled Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites. As I've said, I feel strongly that if I hadn't done it, someone else would have, and in fact, many others artists are celebrating the Book of Mormon with drama, literature and music. So I feel grateful to have experienced the degree of success that I have experienced and fully expect others to follow suit.
As many of you know, that little time-travel epic has spawned a goodly number of sequels and movies and the like, many of which have served as a forum for me to trumpet and publicize theories, geographies, and cultural ideas about the Book of Mormon that were first conceived by some of the very people who attend the BMAF convention—namely, LDS scholars who have written and published on Book of Mormon subjects for the past generation. Storytelling can be a marvelous medium to make dry, complex, often eye-straining ideas accessible to the average, busy, everyday and (primarily) English-speaking people of the LDS faith, including, in many cases, children and teenagers. It was only four books ago that my publisher allowed me to put scholarly footnotes at the end of various chapters so that I could help readers to understand some of the logic and premises behind the fictional speculations. Most of those ideas, I resoundingly admit, I borrowed from LDS scholars of the past generation. So I owe such individuals a great debt of gratitude for their thick, stodgy volumes, and esoteric, apologetic articles, and (in the end) brilliant, common sense deductions regarding the peoples and cultures of the Book of Mormon.
As a result of this pursuit, over time I believe I've become pretty good at distinguishing well-researched, carefully-footnoted and disciplined scholars and scholarship from less-disciplined, sloppy scholarship which work is often contained in equally-thick volumes written by well-meaning amateurs, arm chair enthusiasts, and even a few out-and-out crackpots. No, I'm not perfect at making such distinctions by any stretch. But I'm much better at it now than I was at the beginning of my career. It's most unfortunate to me that some of these "less-disciplined" types can be found promoting the same basic Book of Mormon model that most of those associated with FAIR, the Maxwell Institute, and BMAF currently favor. Nothing hurts a perfectly good idea more than bad scholarship!
However, there are also many less-disciplined types who promote geographies and ideologies about the Book of Mormon that many of us do not intellectually support.As is probably the case with many who are reading this article, particularly those who are consumers of theories rather than developers, I have at times found myself disappointed and even embarrassed to learn that certain ideas that appeared at first to be exciting correlations with the Book of Mormon turned out to be impetuously conceived, leaving me feeling like the Wile E. Coyote of Looney Tunes fame, reciting his infamous phrase, "Oh, well. Back to the ole' drawing board."
But this is okay. Mistakes are inevitable in a study with vistas this rich and comprehensive, and with a volume as deep and complex as the Book of Mormon. There remains a vast spectrum of scholarly knowledge and cultural correlations which have deeply, immeasurably enriched my appreciation of the sacred text. The point that I'm making is simply this—and it's the same point and warning that we should heed with all things, and that is: caveat emptor or "Let the buyer beware."A friendlier way of putting this might simply be that even a believing Latter-day Saint with a strong testimony and spiritual confirmation of the Book of Mormon should remain comfortable with the concept of keeping an open mind. Until the Prophet speaks on matters of geography and DNA and other sciences, we're all just fumbling around with a flashlight. Personally, I think that's how it should be at this particular time. But on the positive side, I'm extraordinarily grateful for that flashlight, because many of the things that have been illuminated by Book of Mormon scholars have, for me, put flesh and bones on the people and places of the Book of Mormon that I would have never envisioned otherwise. After careful contemplation I am confident that many—not all, but many—of the things discovered with this flashlight will remain pretty much intact even when the Prophet, or the Savior Himself, finally illuminates the entire subject with the brightest rays of the sun. Humility. This is the key. Unfortunately, we're human. And humility can be a precious commodity, especially among the so-called "learned." Being well-read does not make one immune. Having a PhD does not make one immune. And especially, having a successful series of fiction novels does not make one immune.
I believe I was first invited to make a presentation for the Book of Mormon Archeological Foundation because members of BMAF became aware of articles that I had posted on my blog, http://www.frostcave.blogspot.com/, wherein I attempted to thoughtfully speculate on a number of gospel subjects with scholarly themes, or vice versa, scholarly subjects with gospel themes. I thought at first that I might be invited to make a presentation on one or two of those articles, but I quickly realized that a principle concern of BMAF right now is to comment upon the well-publicized, well-funded movement which has captured the attention of some Latter-day Saints, and which has come to be known as the Heartland/Great Lakes/or Promised Land model of Book of Mormon geography. I must admit, when I was first locked into these parameters I felt rather bummed. The whole subject and defense seemed very dull. Addressing it appeared as if it would be a waste of my time. I felt (and feel) sure that, eventually, inevitably, such a movement would readily, by itself, fall by the wayside without any help from anyone, just like a myriad of other LDS cultural mythologies like Y2K, or Embraced by the Light, or Art Kocherhan's Isle of Promise, or the angel hitchhiker who goes around telling everyone to get their food storage together and buy a generator.
I've come to realize that this particular phenomenon is slightly different than others. The adherents to the "Heartland" model are, admittedly, of a somewhat different character, and the fuel that feeds the movement itself is very different from that which has fed similar movements in the past. As I pondered the issue, I decided that I was most interested in discussing what I perceived to be the movement's primary attraction—the most salient selling-points, and the core human proclivity that gives these philosophies their strongest intellectual and emotional punch—i.e., the thing that successfully attracts and converts many of the sincere, faithful, and God-fearing saints who have become the philosophy's most vocal advocates. In the end, I think this movement is a fascinating study in Gospel psychology, particularly as the LDS Church evolves from being a principally American phenomenon to that of a world-wide phenomenon. As I present some of these ideas I'm most worried first-off that I might come off as patronizing and belittling. Perhaps this is somewhat unavoidable. But more than anything I hope to fend off that predilection. I recognize that feelings surrounding this issue are very tender, very passionate, and surprisingly dogmatic. This was again emphasized to me a few weeks ago while I was engaged in an autograph signing at the Costco Store in Orem, Utah promoting the 11th Volume in my Tennis Shoes Adventure Series, Sorcerers and Seers.
At events like this the sale and signing of books is often feast or famine. I'm either surrounded by dozens of gushing fans who hand me book after book or else I'm all alone twiddling my thumbs and watching an endless stream of shopping carts wander by with everything from water-softener salt to blueberry muffins. (Perhaps this only happens at Costco signings . . .) It's during some of these thumb-twiddling phases that I'm frequently approached by some of the most unique characters that I ever meet. And this is exactly what happened during one of those lulls in Orem. A woman approached me and began the conversation by telling me how much she loved my books. Then she asked me if I'd taken the opportunity to "update" some of my geographical perspectives about the Book of Mormon in lieu of some of the recent studies that have established that Nephites and Lamanites lived exclusively in the Eastern United States.
This kind of a situation always puts me in an awkward position. If it's been a long day and I'm tired and just roll my eyes, well, I'll likely lose a book sale—and possibly a customer for life! On this particular day I was a little more on my toes than usual, but still unprepared for the passion that I was about to confront. I replied to the woman that I was indeed familiar with those perspectives and was even in the process of studying its precepts in preparation for my presentation to the Book of Mormon Archeological Foundation, which was to take place in a couple of weeks. I told her, dispassionately, that we needed to be careful of studies done by enthusiasts and layman as opposed to disciplined scholars, and that often, even with disciplined scholars, we needed to be careful. I confessed to her that because of my career I'd had a wide range of opportunities to study and compare the writings of numerous Book of Mormon researchers, although I, myself, was not a scientist.
At that instant I heard a voice across the aisle boom, "Well, I am!" It was the woman's husband, and what he was proclaiming was that he, in fact, was a scientist. He said that he taught at a small Utah college and that everything his wife was professing to me about Book of Mormon geography inside the borders of the United States was absolutely true. The man proclaimed himself a physicist and fully supported the "Heartland" geographical model. At that point I informed them both that my initial investigation of the Great Lakes or Heartland model was not particularly compelling, that much of the research was shoddy and often based on information or evidence compiled more than a century ago, and in general seemed interlaced with bias and prejudice supporting a very narrow preconceived agenda, which is usually the anathema of sound scientific research. (I don't think I said it quite so eloquently, but basically that's how I replied.) At that point the woman patted my hand or my shoulder—I don't quite recall which—and said, "Well, obviously you suffer from a common ailment: You have already made up your mind."
Wowww! I thought. Don't ever say something like that to a male. Even the most humble will know that they are being patronized and get ready to don boxing gloves and dance around like John L. Sullivan. Under the circumstances I thought I handled the situation rather well. I explained that, no, my mind wasn't closed on the subject at all and that I had recently written an article questioning a long-held tenet in the Mesoamerican model regarding the Hill Cumorah and the Hill Vigia in southern Veracruz, Mexico. Such a tenet, if shown to be false, could render one of my novels entirely out-of-date, and potentially affect my financial bottom line.
The physics professor asked me for my contact information and handed me his card, which advertised his website. The couple then launched a last salvo arguing their position, prompting me to make my final salvo which was, as I said before, "The key to all of this is humility. Until the Lord speaks on this subject—either personally or through his prophet—we're fully dependent upon our own intelligence and research, which could one day be rendered moot by the word of the Lord." The couple was in the process of walking away as I was saying this, but at least showed the courtesy not to turn away their heads until I had finished speaking.
Later, after visiting this scientist's website, I realized that I had not confronted a run-of-the-mill advocate of the Heartland model, but one of its formal champions—a man who has spoken at some of their events and even invited Rod Meldrum to personally present a "fireside" in his home. Now let me add, only a week prior to the event I've been describing, at another Costco in Murray, UT (I don't know why these confrontations seem to happen lately at Costco) another advocate of the "Heartland" or "Promised Land" model also had the gumption to approach me and argue the cause for the Book of Mormon taking place inside U.S. borders. This time I was surrounded by customers getting their books signed so despite the fact that she re-approached me several times, our conversation took place in snippets. As in the other case, it was clear that this particular model for Book of Mormon geography had made solid converts. I'm unsure why . . . maybe it's part of their philosophy . . . but these people sincerely felt the need to spread their geographical message with all the zeal of a missionary. Admittedly, I might be kind of a target for these kinds of individuals since I write Book of Mormon fiction. Still, if the tables were turned, and I was in a similar setting—say a book signing with someone who I knew espoused the Heartland geographical—there's no way that I would feel inclined to approach them and present an opposing perspective. And it wouldn't be because I was afraid. Would it be because I'm more polite? No. Honestly, I think it's just that I don't take this subject nearly as seriously as they do. Perhaps you'll come to learn in this presentation that I don't take it nearly as seriously as some reading this article. And yet "seriously" is not the right word. Certainly, in the right setting, I take the subject very seriously, but never so much that I'd ever feel inclined to spread my opinions like a missionary seeking proselytes. So I had to ask myself, what is it about this phenomenon that attracts converts and inspires such zeal?
Now, please understand, these two Costco experiences are not the extent of my confrontations or observations of the Heartland "movement." And by the way, I've noted that Rod Meldrum and his devotees become very proud when their ideas are referred to as a movement. They see themselves very much as a phenomenon that started with one or two untrained, unscholarly observers who, without outside funding (though little is ever discussed regarding inside funding), have in three or four short years turned the heads of the entire LDS community, or in their words, "Even the most avid supporters of Mesoamerican models now admit that the Heartland Model of Book of Mormon geography has become a movement sufficient to warrant their utmost attention and concern" (Rod Meldrum, FIRM Newsletter, June-July 2010).
You have to understand, they love the fact that LDS scholars, who have been proponents of Mesoamerican models, are willing to expend so much time fighting their position. They adore the idea that a major theme of this year's BMAF conference has been to alert the LDS public to the fallacies of their doctrines and philosophies. To the "Heartlanders" this is free advertising! This is the best kind of promotion that a grass roots "movement" like theirs could ever hope for! Maybe they never dreamed that long-standing LDS scholarly forums like FAIR and FARMS or the Maxwell Institute would ever take them seriously. But again, is "seriously" the right word? Again, I don't think it quite fits. What I think the Heartland advocates and the LDS community in general have observed from LDS scholars is more akin to confusion and frustration. They are literally scratching their heads trying to figure out why this Heartland geographic model, which is, no matter what Meldrum and his people might admit, very well funded and very commercially ambitious, has had any level of success at attracting followers whatsoever!
In addressing this matter one cannot ignore the fundamental reasons why the Heartland model is so attractive and will continue to cultivate advocates of the kind who approached me at Costco. These reasons go beyond scholarship. They are so powerful that they utterly stifle scholarship. At this BMAF Conference we listened to several presentations citing scholarly arguments against the "Heartland" platform. However, I promise you, with most adherents to the Heartland model, such arguments have no effect upon them whatsoever. The core philosophy is such that most Heartlanders would respond, "Who cares if the scholarship is presently flawed! The scholarship will improve. The core philosophy is the thing."
The motivations behind this movement may be diverse and difficult to sum up in a few words, but if pushed, the two that I would choose are the ones that appear in the title of this talk: American Exceptionalism.
So what is American Exceptionalism? Simply put, American Exceptionalism is the view that the United States, as a nation, occupies a special place among the nations of the world because of its national ethos, religious institutions, and unique position as the world's first working representative democracy. This definition goes beyond the kind of nationalism that defines the citizens of most national and ethnic heritages, and imbues the United States with a "divine" responsibility to lead the world in moral and religious authority, as well as in economic power, military strength, and political influence. Today's proponents of American Exceptionalism are generally political conservatives who hold to the idea that America is blessed and privileged by God to have played the role that it has played up to this point in history. They believe the United States is, as Ronald Reagan described it, "a shining city on a hill," or in other words, an indomitable symbol of light and freedom for the rest of the world to emulate.
Gosh. When you put it like that, we might find that most who read this article have American Exceptionalistic leanings. I know that I do! There are few titles that I place upon myself that I express with more pride than when I call myself an American. I am a flag-waving patriot. I am a staunch social and political conservative and I would call myself that long before I would call myself a Republican, though I tend to vote Republican in every election in the blind hope that my candidate is at least more likely to feel the same way that I do. I am a Rush Limbaugh disciple. A Glenn Beck devotee. And a Tea Party sympathizer. The bumper sticker on my car reads, "I was Anti-Obama before it was cool." Before two years ago I'd never displayed a bumper sticker in my life. But like many Americans, many Latter-day Saints, and probably many who read this article, I have become concerned that the foundation of our representative democracy is threatened by the policies and postures of the current office holders in Washington (notice I said "office holders" and not merely the current "administration").
Conservative leader Mike Huckabee stated that "to deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation." These words were quoted in an article about the Tea Party movement in America, helping us to understand that these two philosophies have a lot in common. Mike Huckabee, as we know, is a faithful Baptist minister with distinctly anti-Mormon leanings, as we learned during his political battle with former Gov. Mitt Romney. In spite of this, I think it's fair to say that American Exceptionalism is deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of most deeply religious Christians in this country.
Who would deny that the rise of popularity and visibility of the Heartland model goes hand in hand with the rise and popularity associated with the current political sentiments in America? Therefore, a valid question that everyone should ask is: What happens when you mingle American Exceptionalism with Book of Mormon geography? The answer, I am here to propose, is the Heartland Model of Book of Mormon Geography. I believe that to understand the reason why this theory is inherently attractive to many Latter-day Saints—American Latter-day Saints—one needs only to examine the current political developments among America's religious conservatives.
Some may wonder how these two philosophies even relate. As I hope I am able to make clear, that relationship is fundamental. You see, a primary ingredient that modern American Exceptionalism may be lacking in the fast-growing secularist and globalist environment of our nation, is a powerful and "exclusive" religious component. All the better if this missing component can also be rooted in a framework of biological, anthropological, and archeological science alongside supposed historical scholarship. As far as I have been able to determine, no other dynamic across the spectrum of the American landscape fits more neatly into, or better supports, the current conservative political trends in America than the ones presented by Rod Meldum and the Heartland or Promised Land models of Book of Mormon geography.
Now, if I'm not careful, Mr. Meldrum could use that quote out of context to support his model, so let me clarify that any support that these philosophies bring to American Exceptionalism is fundamentally flawed, doctrinally unsound, and spiritually damaging and isolating, not only to the Church itself as it transforms from an American organization into a worldwide organization, but to the individual Latter-day Saint who advocates them. Yes, as I have already stated, I am a proud American. But when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ, my patriotism and my nationalism hit a brick wall. What I mean is, that's where my identity as an American is soundly trumped.
I used to give a fireside talk about the labels or titles we choose for ourselves. I discussed how all of us identify ourselves by hundreds of labels—a parent, a student, an American, an African American, a woman, an artist, an intellectual, a scrapbooker, a Cheesehead—that's a fan of the Green Bay Packers—a Trekkie. Each of us has hundreds of these labels. But whenever any single label earns more prominence in our minds than our identity as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, it's my belief that the Adversary will invariably, eventually, use that label to twist our loyalties and undermine our faith. If we have to make a choice between a favorite label and the Gospel, the Gospel generally loses. In other words, we will accept following the precepts of being a Latter-day Saint unless those precepts interfere with our identity as an artist, or our desire to shop on Sunday, or our status as an intellectual, in which case, Gospel precepts fall by the wayside. Another danger is when we improperly mingle those labels together. Being a Glenn Beck listener I'm well aware of current diatribes that he has presented against mingling the concepts of government, economy, and religion. We're all aware of the dangers or bias inherent in pegging someone with the stereotype of being a "Utah Mormon." But I think the same dangers can be inherent in mingling the concept of being an American Latter-day Saint.
We don't need to dig too deeply to ascertain that Brother Meldrum's model is rooted in American Exceptionalism, nationalism, and nativism. It's apparent in the very titles that he has chosen to represent his model. For example—"Heartland." Heartland of what? Well, obviously he means the heartland of America. But it means more than that. In the context in which he's placed the word it has much the same emotional meaning as "fatherland" to a German or "motherland" to a Russian. The word itself is designed to invoke warm and fuzzy images of the Declaration of Independence, Minuteman pounding on drums, and the Stars and Stripes. In fact, those are the very images that appear on Brother Meldrum's website FIRM or the Foundation of Indigenous Research and Mormonism. See:
Their recent symposium in Utah County was entitled America's Freedom Education Week and, according to the list of presenters and presentations, freely mingled conservative patriotism with the concepts of Heartland Book of Mormon geography. I believe the Heartland people are well aware of the tenets that represent their most successful sales tactics. They know that their future success depends upon milking the most profitable dynamic. To maximize their visibility and success, it is imperative to them to mingle American Exceptionalism and Book of Mormon geography. The tactic itself is as old and as wily as it can possibly be—push a controversial or unpublicized agenda by intermixing it with something that few can disagree with. All the better if that "mutually agreed-upon" thing is also emotionally evocative.
Another phrase highly publicized by the Heartland people is "Promised Land." Very powerful words, particularly for Latter-day Saints, and it goes to the heart of the most fundamental point that they use to support their geographic model—the idea that the United States is the only nation that could possibly be defined by the parameters of a blessed nation as described by the Book of Mormon. Here's Brother Meldrum in his own words:
"Does the Book of Mormon itself indicate the location of its 'Promised Land'? YES, again the Book of Mormon consistently gives us guidance and direction if we will simply look for it. The DVD presentation develops for the first time a scriptural 'chain mail' that firmly and conclusively indicates exactly where the 'Promised Land' of the Book of Mormon is to be found. There are 36 specific Prophesies and Promises found in over 200 scriptural passages pertaining to the Promised Land of the latter days. Each of these are fulfilled in only one latter-day nation as defined by scripture. That nation is the United States of America. This is supported by the text of the Book of Mormon, along with the Doctrine and Covenants, both considered holy cannon of the church. The Book of Mormon occurred on the Promised Land according to its record, making the United States of America the principle location of its geography."
In the interest of time, let's focus on what many would likely concede is the most specific of these 200 scriptural passages, namely 2 Nephi Chapter 1, verses 5-9:
5. But, said he [Father Lehi], notwithstanding our afflictions, we have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord.
6. Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.
7. Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever.
9. Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever.
Now, as we study these verses more closely, let's list the characteristics that the "promised land" being described by the Prophet Lehi must possess:
1. It must be the "land" that Lehi obtained, a promised land, however that might be defined.
2. It must be "choice" above all other lands
3. It must be, according to the Lord's covenant, a land of inheritance for "Lehi's seed."
4. It must also be a land of inheritance for the people of "other countries" who are led there by the hand of the Lord.
5. It must be a land that no one is allowed to come to except they are led by the hand of the Lord.
6. It is a land consecrated unto those whom the Lord will bring.
7. It shall be a land of liberty, but only to those who shall serve the Lord according to the commandments which He has given.
8. It shall be a land which is never brought into captivity unless the land falls into iniquity. That caveat is very important.
9. In the case of iniquity the land shall be "cursedfor their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever."
10. For a long period of time the land shall be kept from the knowledge of the other lands to keep it from being overrun and, we presume, defiled as a place of inheritance.
It emphasizes again in verse 9 that those in the land who follow the Lord's commandments will be prosperous, blessed, protected, safe, and never molested.
Now, I mention again, published material by the Heartland people emphasizes many more verses than the ones I have highlighted here. But I'm not sure that any other verses highlight characteristics much different than those mentioned in the first chapter of 2 Nephi. So I'll simply ask: Which of these verses could be characterized as only referring to the United States of America?
I think it's common knowledge (so I didn't even bother to look up a reference) that most, if not all,of the nations of North and South America, after obtaining independence from their mother countries, used the Constitution of the United States as the model for their own constitutions. To this day there has never been a king upon the modern landscape of North or South America. Yes, there have been a few nasty dictators who are (for all practical purposes) the same thing as wicked kings. But the Nephites and Lamanites dealt with those kinds of leaders too, so in such cases we must refer back to the caveat: that the Lord's protection is only guaranteed when the inhabitants are righteous and do not fall into iniquity.
So why is Cuba currently governed by a dictatorship? I'm not sure. It's likely that Cuban nationals who defected to the United States would have some strong opinions about that. But the fact is, according to the Book of Mormon, if the people follow the Lord's commandments and repent of their sins, they will, if they are indeed inhabitants of the "promised land," remain a free and prosperous people.
In my personal studies of the arguments and materials presented and published by Rod Meldrum, Bruce Porter, Wayne May, and other Heartland advocates, there is nothing that persuades me that verses of the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants describe exclusively the lands inside the natural borders of the United States of America. As I've already stated, I am indeed a flag-waving, patriotic American, but even the thought that somehow America or Americans or this land alone is exclusively favored or blessed by the hand of God, and that Mexico, Chile, Peru, Guatemala, Canada, and other Western Hemisphere nations fall outside the parameters of this definition is revolting to me. It's revolting and offensive. And I hope it's revolting and offensive to everyone else reading this article. Finally, I hope it's revolting, offensive, and repudiated by all Latter-day Saints, but particularly American Latter-day Saints.
I've had it confirmed by so many sources that, again, it seems trivial and silly to even cite a reference, that it is common practice among Latter-day Saints of Mexico, Chile, Canada, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Peru—you name it—to read these verses from the Book of Mormon and say, "Those verses are talking about us. They are talking about our lands. They are talking about the blessings that we are promised to receive if we are righteous and following the commandments of God." And the people of other nations don't limit the meaning to them. For them the definition is Hemispheric. I'd be curious to witness what kind of exchange takes place whenever an advocate of the Heartland model expresses his philosophies to a Latter-day Saint from another New World country? My opinion is that this would be American Exceptionalism at its very worst, and may actually go a long way toward explaining why some people in foreign nations despise and distrust Americans, always feeling that they will, invariably, put their own self-interests first. Please, I pray, do not let Latter-day Saint Americans fall into this category of Americans.
As I've stated previously, I'm not a scholar. I'm much more comfortable calling myself a philosopher. If you're interested in scholarship to resolve this issue, I hope that you'll refer to many fine presentations offered by others. Also, may I direct you to an unpublished talk given by Matt Roper entitled "Losing the Remnant—the New Exclusivist Movement and the Book of Mormon." Unpublished? Yes, I'm told that it's slated for publication later this year (2010). Brother Roper granted me special permission to refer to it. In his presentation Brother Roper exhaustively identifies dozens of references wherein prophets and leaders of the LDS Church have specified that the term "promised land" definitively refers to lands beyond the United States of America. Such references come from sources as distinguished as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Spencer W. Kimball, J. Reuben Clark, David O. McKay, Ezra Taft Benson, and other formidable Church authorities.
For example, Brigham Young taught in August of 1852, "The land of Joseph is the land of Zion; and it takes North and South America to make the land of Joseph. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol.6, p.296, Brigham Young, August 15, 1852)."
Elder George F. Richards testified in 1922, “The land of North and South America is a very much favored portion of our Father's footstool, and he has declared with his own mouth that it is a land of promise -- a chosen land -- above all other lands. (George F. Richards, Conference Report, October 1922, p.80)."
In 1937 President Heber J. Grant stated, “I am a firm believer that this country, both North and South America, is the choice land of the world, a land choice above all other lands, according to the words of the prophets in the Book of Mormon.(Heber J. Grant, Conference Report, October 1937, p.98)."
In 1979, Ezra Taft Benson said to the Saints in Bolivia:
This is but a small sampling. Brother Roper's article discusses a myriad of other misconceptions presented by Porter and Meldrum with such clarity that it leads me to wonder how such a myopic definition of "promised land" ever gained traction among Church member in the first place. Again, the only explanation for me is the all-too human flaw and failing of somehow wanting to find as many rationales as possible to feel that oneself or one's country is in some way superior to others—a flaw for which American Latter-day Saints are obviously not immune.
I first realized this kind of biased perception existed among American members of the Church prior to the time that I wrote my first published novel. The realization occurred during my first trip to Mexico with Dr. Joseph Allen and Book of Mormon Tours. I was 23 years old, unmarried, and possibly the youngest member of the tour. During one of the long bus rides across the Mexican countryside several of us looked out across the landscape and noticed a single farmer diligently working the soil with a mule and an old fashioned plow. A woman and fellow tourist sitting across from me sighed and said, rather innocently, "Doesn't a sight like that make you feel especially blessed to have been born and raised as a Latter-day Saint in America?"
She may not have been aware that I'd actually converted at the age of 18. In any case, I pondered her statement deeply, at first inclined to nod. There was no doubt in my mind that it was an incredible blessing to have been born an American and to have discovered the Church in the midst of affluent and intelligent Latter-day Saints. Such individuals had borne sincere testimony to me for many years. But I'd made other observations during that trip to Mexico. I'd met several LDS Mexican families and had the privilege of attending a Mexican Sacrament meeting in a tiny community in the state of Veracruz. The feelings that I had were quite profound. So, as I sometimes do, I began to apply a little different interpretation to my fellow tourist's seemingly innocent statement. I thought about the humility of those Mexican saints, the fact that virtually every activity they enjoyed was centered around their families, and I began to wonder if the fact that I was an American Latter-day Saint who'd been raised in what, by Mexican standards, would have certainly been wealthy, might actually find myself cursed rather than blessed. If the ultimate objective is to return to our Father in Heaven and reach the Celestial Kingdom, could my circumstances as an affluent American, born into a family that to this day is not particularly close, and having a distinct tendency to complain if my steak is cooked medium-rare instead of medium-well, prove a hindrance to my overall ability to tap into the voice of the Spirit and let that power be the dominating compass of my life? Maybe, in the end, the humble circumstances of that Mexican farmer would make him better prepared for his reunion with Christ than my own? It was a sobering thought, and it affected me a great deal then, even as it does today. The fact is that missionary success in the United States, as far as convert baptisms, has dropped off significantly in the past decade, so much so that I've been told that General Authorities have expressed concern over the matter.
Now who are the missionaries? Unfortunately, that's you and me that any such statistics would be talking about—not merely 19-year-olds with nametags. I'm disturbed to confess that in the 29 years that I've been a member of this Church, I've only had a reliable home-teacher who showed up regularly about 2 of those years. I could cite other examples of what might be considered waning exuberance among American saints, but in doing so I might confess some of my own shortcomings. Perhaps my experience is unique among American or Utah Mormons. The point is that if we, as saints, will not fulfill the basic requirements of Church membership, the Lord's blessings must inevitably be withheld and offered elsewhere, undoubtedly to those whom the Lord can rely upon to valiantly serve in building His kingdom. There are very sobering scriptures found in 3 Nephi Chapter 16 which discuss the ultimate destiny of the gentile saints—which is what most of us are. We are gentiles "adopted" into the house of Israel. These verses in 3 Nephi discuss a transition within the Church back to being an organization whose descendants are predominantly of the House of Israel. Such verses may suggest that the days of dominance for European/American Latter-day Saints in the Church of Jesus Christ may be numbered.
It's my sober opinion that for some American saints, if they learned tomorrow that the headquarters of the Church were moving to Seoul, South Korea, it would give them serious pause. They would fail completely to understand such a decision. Ultimately the decision would put their faith in crisis. It's this tendency, this bias, this worldview that persists among many American Mormons that the Heartland model exploits with embarrassing success, causing some faithful Church members to forget basic tenets of the Church that they have been taught all of their lives.
The most essential of those tenets, I believe, is the doctrine that personal revelation is never to be published or distributed among the general members of the Church unless that revelation is received, and the distribution is orchestrated and approved, by the Prophet and President of the Church, who is at this time Thomas S. Monson. Section 28 of the Doctrine and Covenant expounds that principle of the Church so resoundingly that I'm always baffled when Church members seem to forget or ignore this. Rodney Meldrum has consistently proclaimed that he has received revelatory guidance in formulating his Book of Mormon perspectives and establishing his organizations. He has attacked Church-funded research efforts, Church-established scholarly organizations, and accused the LDS Church and its leaders of refusing (in his mind) to follow Joseph Smith, and of wasting millions of tithing dollars by pursuing erroneous archeological projects. A compilation of the many recorded instances where Rod Meldrum blatantly and unapologetically reveals spiritual promptings as the guiding factor behind his actions has been complied by FAIR in an article on their website.
It seems that few proponents of the Heartland model have been inclined to read this reference, or they have chosen to entirely ignore Section 28's guidelines. I'd heard a rumor that Brother Meldrum was trying to back away and temper such remarks, but in a newsletter published in June-July of this year, Brother Meldrum again reinforces his method for proving his arguments. After relishing the fact that his theories have provoked so many rebuttals from organizations like FAIR and BMAF and a powerpoint presentation by Joseph and Blake Allen, he writes:
One might ask, why would The FIRM Foundation [Meldrum's new counter-organization to FAIR] provide links to these websites [like FAIR and BMAF]? Wouldn't we be afraid to have folks see the materials critical to the Heartland Model? We have always encouraged folks to study things out in their own minds, and then do as the scriptures indicate...ask the source of all truth if it be right or wrong. Those who have objectively considered the research provided in the new 5 DVD series, Book of Mormon Evidence, don't require others to respond to the questions brought up in the Allen's powerpoint, they can answer those questions for themselves. And when they see inaccurate information or erroneous conclusions in regard to the Heartland Model, it is more likely to stengthen their desire to learn more of the Heartland Model.
I'm not going to mince words. This is nefarious stuff. What Brother Meldrum boldly asserts is that general Latter-day Saints are fully authorized to receive revelation on matters for which the Prophet and leaders of the LDS Church have offered no definitive doctrine or direction. In fact, they have offered definitive direction to the contrary. This kind of spiritual manipulation has been taking place in our midst for generations and must be perpetually corrected by Church leaders. Persons attempting to advocate a certain position often cannot overcome the temptation to state, in essence, "I have learned by the Spirit of revelation that what I am proposing is true, and if somehow you fail to receive the same spiritual confirmation, well, it must mean that you're not praying hard enough, you're not worthy, or you're not able to detect the Spirit's Voice." This leaves the listener feeling that if they somehow fail to receive confirmation one way or the other, they must be less of a Latter-day Saint. So, to save face, the vulnerable pupil either pretends to have received the necessary revelation or they must misinterpret what a spiritual prompting actually is. However, there is a third option. Both parties, because they have failed to understand or deliberately ignored the principles of revelatory stewardship, could actually receive a revelation—but not from our Father in Heaven. This is why Section 28 was given to us. This is why the principles of revelatory stewardship have been so carefully established in the Lord's Church.
How many of you have had some person who is close to you approach and say, "I've been praying about your situation . . ." or "You've been heavily on my mind of late and I feel prompted that I should tell you the following . . ." Yuck! I had this happen to me recently and all I could think was "Yuck!" The polite response is usually, "Well, I'll pray about it too and if I receive the same message, I'll let you know." But you don't even have to do that. If the person who has approached you has no position of stewardship or authority over you, or even if they have authority but it does not encompass the subject of their message, you don't need verification! The situation is already twisted! The person bringing the message may even love you and be well-meaning, but the truth is, they are attempting to manipulate you, and for some reason they feel that their wisdom or advice can be better augmented if they can just give it a "spiritual edge." I urge us all to lovingly correct any such manipulations. If we fail to do so, and somehow start down a path suggested by this so-called "revelator," the end result will invariably be heartbreak and disaster, and the Adversary will be laughing.
Someone very near and dear to my heart once approached me and said, "I've prayed about it and received an answer, and if you pray about it, I promise you'll get the same answer that I did." So I did. And I didn't. And this issue remains a source of conflict between us to this day—a conflict that I think would have been resolved with a full understanding of revelatory stewardship.
I'm proud to say—I know that's a strange word to use in this context, but I'll use it anyway—I'm proud to say that I've never received a single revelation with regard to Book of Mormon geography or scholarship. I'm proud that I've never been found more worthy than the Prophet of God in offering to the world new and unrevealed information regarding this sacred volume of scripture. Does this mean that we can't use our intellect to expand such understandings? Absolutely not! Does it mean that we shouldn't pray for guidance? Are you kidding me? Only a fool would pursue any intellectual undertaking without praying for guidance.
I actually owe a great debt of gratitude to Dr. Joseph Allen on the issue of revelatory stewardship. I've criticized portions of Dr. Allen's research in my recent blogs, but the fact remains that, as a mentor on this subject, Dr. Allen helped me to establish an early firm foundation. As I said before, I went on tour with Dr. Allen when I was twenty-three, still vulnerable, still impressionable, like so many members of our Church at any age. For some reason I couldn't help but ask him at one point how he felt "spiritually" about some of the proposals that he was making regarding Book of Mormon locations. Dr. Allen's eyes kind of glazed over. He shrugged and said with absolutely no emotion, "I feel alright." He went on to explain that it wasn't his place to "feel" anything one way or another. He was just doing the best that he could with the information available. I've always been grateful for the stance that he took on such a matter when I was still very young in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
There's no telling what the future holds for organizations like FIRM or Rodney Meldrum or the Heartland model of Book of Mormon geography. Some may be convinced that American Exceptionalism has nothing to do with their convictions regarding this model and that they are simply "intellectually" convinced. Or, no matter how hard they try, the inner bias and prejudice are so deeply entrenched they simply cannot make the separation in their minds. Others might ask, "What harm is there in supporting or studying one model over another model?" The answer to that question depends upon who is asking it and why they are asking it. The harm could be negligible or it could be substantial. As the LDS website FAIR states:
If members of the Church or sincere investigators are told . . . that a certain set of facts or scientific findings support the gospel, they may later feel misled or deceived when they learn that those facts have been misrepresented or misinterpreted. If they are encouraged to anchor their faith to the sands of a flawed argument, when the truth washes the sand away the believer’s faith may go with it.
There's no doubt that the harm to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in general is the divisiveness that this "movement" has provoked among its members. Additional harm is added to the mix in that some members of the Church seem more prone to reject generations of quality LDS scholarship altogether. I have no doubt that the conflict related to Book of Mormon geography inside US borders vs. other geography models will indeed cause some to abandon their faith. I was recently sent a link by the author of an internet article. This author harshly criticized me for my presentation on American Exceptionalim and Book of Mormon Geography before I'd even had a chance to present it! This man believed in the Book of Mormon, believed in the Heartland model, and has roundly rejected the LDS Church and its leaders. I would have never conceived that such a thing could exist! But it most definitely does.
The adversary has a wide range of stratagems and devices that he employs to deceive Church members and drive a stake into our testimonies. But it would be a sincere a shame if a phenomenon like this becomes the means of driving anyone to question the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or the organization that the Lord has established to represent Him. But such a consequence seems inevitable when a set of facts or findings are anchored—deliberately or inadvertently—to the trends of nationalism and exceptionalism that have so passionately captivated American conservatives over the past several years.
May we always take pride in our American citizenship and may we honor it by acts of patriotism and service. But may we never allow our national pride to trump our faith or interfere with the overall mission of the Lord's Church in penetrating every continent, visiting every clime, sweeping every country, and sounding in every ear—"till the purposes of God shall be accomplished and the Great Jehovah shall say The Work Is Done."