Introduction to Book of Mormon Geography

Introduction to Book of Mormon Geography

by Ryan D. Williams


The gist of this talk is why are we looking at Book of Mormon geography, history, culture, or language(s). What is the value of studying some of these items? 


In looking to find that scripture where it talks about how one one-hundredth part cannot be included on the plates, I found there is not just one reference; there are several places actually, where this is mentioned in the Book of Mormon. You can see a couple of examples here. We know that everything in the Book of Mormon has to be highly valuable because there was not room on the plates to include all the writings. Starting here in Jacob 3:13,

“And a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, which now began to be numerous, cannot be written upon these plates, but many of their proceedings are written upon the larger plates, and their wars, and their contentions, and the reigns of their kings.”

And again in the Words of Mormon 1:5,

“Wherefore, I chose these things, to finish my record upon them, which remainder of my record I shall take from the plates of Nephi and I cannot write the hundredth part of the things of my people” 

Also in Helaman 3:14.

“But behold, a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, yea, the record of the Lamanites and of the Nephites, and their wars, and contentions, and dissensions, and their preaching, and their prophecies, and their shipping and their building of ships, and their building of temples, and of synagogues and their sanctuaries, and their righteousness, and their wickedness, and their murders, and their robbings, and their plundering, and all manner of abominations and whoredoms, cannot be contained in this work”

There wasn’t room to contain any of the activities outlined in this scripture. If there wasn’t room to contain any of these items, not even one one-hundredth of a part, doesn’t that mean that everything we have in the Book of Mormon is of high value? That seems to be the implication. When we think about how the Book of Mormon was written, a large portion of it was written much after the fact, or in other words, was compiled based on histories that were written earlier. When we take that perspective and realize that, I think it is easier to see how Mormon, in this case, could pick and choose the items that were of the highest worth to put into the book and to do so in a manner that would teach us a spiritual message.

We are told in the beginning of the Book of Mormon that Nephi made his record in the language of his father, which consisted of two things. In Nephi 1:2, it reads,

“Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and thelanguage of the Egyptians” 

The first was the learning of the JewsA close friend of mine, Richard Barrett, has spent some time in Israel, and I remember sitting through a fireside that he gave one time, where he said that the learning of the Jews can be answered basically as one thing. It is the Law, and that is what he described the learning of the Jews as. Lots of times we talk about a lot of things that it implies and means, and if that is the case, then we can look in the scriptures in Alma 34:14. From this we can learn what it truly means to write the Book of Mormon after the learning of the Jews.

“And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.”

In other words, the Book of Mormon was written in such a way that everything would point towards Christ – both the physical and spiritual messages that point towards Christ. We know there wasn’t room to include a lot of events -- they were very limited in what was selected -- and yet everything needed to be written in a way that it would point towards Christ.

 I think this is a small but beautiful example of how we can see the style of writing taking place where they have given us a historical -- or climate section that appears to be written in a way that points towards a spiritual message.

When you read starting in verse 39 in chapter 46 -- and I have just highlighted the main points here - it tells us that many people have died, but they went out of the world rejoicing because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

Many died – went out of the world rejoicing. Some died with fevers. God prepared plants and roots to remove the cause of disease to which men were subject due to the nature of the climate Some died with old age Those who died with faith in Christ had joy. It goes on to say that some died with fevers, but then it backtracks and says, but not so much so with fevers because -- and that’s the central part – “God prepared plants and roots to remove the cause of disease to which men were subject due to the nature of the climate.” And then it repeats itself. (Alma 46:40)

This literary style that we see in the Book of Mormon is broadly defined as a chiasmus. There are a lot of other terms you can go into, but basically, it is written in a way that it builds towards the center and draws emphasis to the part in italics here. It ends in the same way that it started, that many died having faith in Christ, and because of this they had joy.

If we backtrack a little and go to Mosiah 14:2, and this is actually quoting Isaiah, we read,

“For he [Christ] shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground."

Now with that in mind, re-read the verses we just read about climate in the previous chapter.

“God prepared plants and roots to remove the cause of disease to which men were subject due to the nature of the climate.”

In other words, if we prepare for the Savior, we remove the disease to which we are subject due to the climate here on earth. Even talking about the two types of death there, beginning with death and ending with death, talking about the diseases that they suffered. It is a beautiful example of being

written in a way that it uses a physical message to teach a spiritual message, and it points towards Christ as we would expect they would do after the learning of the Jews, as was discussed in the previous scripture that we read. In the nature of the climate, being the nature of the climate here on earth. We are subjected to two things: we are going to die physically, and we are subject to spiritual death, having fallen from the presence of the father by being born into this life. But God prepared plants and roots, or the Savior, to remove the cause of disease to which we are subject.

This is just a small but good example to show how something such as climate being included does have worth, and you can understand why it was included here when they could not include even one one hundredth part.

Turn to Alma 22, This is often referred to as the geography chapter. A lot of the physical features outlined in Alma 22 are what a lot of the geographical theories today are based around as to where the Book of Mormon took place. Here, we receive more information about the geographical lay-out of the land than in almost all the rest of the Book of Mormon, a lot of geographical tidbits of information. The chapter starts out as a conversion story. We hear about the magnificent conversion of a Lamanite king. But then it goes on to say that he wants to send a proclamation throughout all the land so that the people can know of the wonderful thing that the king has experienced. It goes on to tell us what the land consists of, going well beyond Lamanite borders, and talking a lot about Nephite boundaries andother areas. It is important to know who is actually writing this section. This is being compiled by Mormon hundreds of years after the fact, who probably had a more broad understanding of the geographical layout of the land based on records that he has access to more than even the king, himself, who is talking about sending out a proclamation throughout the land. When he gets into talking specifics that extend clear up into the Nephite land, you have to wonder how this Lamanite king would even know these areas.

The East Sea

The West Sea

The Land Northward

The Land Southward

The Narrow Neck of Land

The Narrow Strip of Wilderness

The Land of Nephi

The Land of Zarahemla

The Land of Bountiful

The Land of Desolation

Nephites were nearly surrounded by Lamanites

Nephites were nearly surrounded by water



In reality, we know that it is probably Mormon’s influence that is providing the geographic descriptions in this chapter. There are a lot of physical features outlined here, and when we start looking at them, and if we can see they are talking more here than just about geography, what could be the messages?

The entire chapter is written in the literary style of chiasmus. You can see that everything has its corresponding match or opposite in the geographic descriptions that are given.

When we start with the East Sea and the West Sea, we are talking about the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, or life and death. The Land Northward and the Land Southward. We are told in Alma 22 that the land northward and the land southward are actually synonymous with the Land of Bountiful and the Land of Desolation. It is probably hard to understand why the symbolism of life and death is assigned with northward and southward until you realize that they are synonymous with the lands of Bountiful and Desolation, bountiful meaning abundance, and desolation meaning death.

We learn that the Narrow Strip of Wilderness divided the Land of Nephi from the Land of Zarahemla, and at this time, divided the wicked from the righteous. Likewise, it was a narrow neck of land that separated the Land Northward from the Land Southward, the Land of Desolation from the Land of Bountiful. The Narrow Neck of Land, then being the narrow neck between life and death.

The Nephites were nearly surrounded by Lamanites, and they were nearly surrounded by water. Once again, they are showing complete opposites. They are in the world but not of the world by being surrounded by Lamanites, and innocence, birth, and protection from harm being symbolic of being nearly surrounded by water.

Seashore and wilderness. Why safety for seashore? When you talk about the seashore, lots of times it is used symbolically for safety because it was a safe place where they could navigate the ships. When you were within sight of the shores, you always knew where you were at, and you didn’t get lost. It is just the opposite of that when you are in the wilderness, when we talk about getting lost in the wilderness, the spiritual message there being the difference between safety and danger. If these are, indeed, what they are symbolic of -- if this is why it has been written in this literary style, why it is even included when we can’t include a lot of information in the Book of Mormon -- the question becomes, what is it pointing towards? Let’s look at the middle passage of the chiasmus here. It is actually in verse 32. It seems a little odd when you first read through it, but the center here of all these couplets is the following:

“. . . and now, it was only the distance of a day and half journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountifuland the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea . . . .”

A lot of scholars may have different opinions of exactly where these events took place, but they will basically be talking about the same geographic region. We’re talking about an area that is less than 300 miles typically, but there are variations on the theories within.  BMAF does not have one specific theory that we present as a group. Rather, we see ourselves as an opportunity to bring together scholars that present on some of the various theories within this region. This is one of the verses that has some variation among some of the theories. Some people will theorize that from the east to the west seas means from a point in the east to the west sea. Others may read it as from the East Sea to the west sea. When we are talking about the Land of Bountiful and the Land of Desolation, we are talking about is a boundary line between the Land Northward and the Land Southward or between the Lands of Bountiful and of Desolation. I am not going to go into wherever this boundary may be geographically.  I want to focus on is why this phrase is placed in the middle of a literary passage, and why it is even included in Alma 22 about a conversion. 

If you want to know what that day and a half symbolizes, one possibility, and one that is perhaps spurred on by the mention that this journey was from the east to the west sea, is that we are talking about our life here on earth. In Alma 34:32-33, we read,

“For behold this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors. And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech ofyou that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.”

If we are talking about our day in this life, from the east to the west sea, from birth to death and then of the resurrection, we are talking about a day and a half’s journey. Another symbolism that we can look at on a day and half’s journey is one that doesn’t necessarily jump out in the beginning. We always think of the time that Christ spent in the tomb as three days. The following quotations are from the Bible, and are being quoted by Book of Mormon prophets. In 2 Nephi 25:13, we read,

“and after he is laid in a sepulchre for the space of three days he shall rise from the dead . . .”

 We get a little clarification in Mosiah 3:10, where we read,

“And he shall rise the third day from the dead . . .”

If we look at the actual time that took place, it once again mirrors with what we are talking about from birth to death to resurrection, or the words, a day and half’s journey. There is only a day and a half’s time that transpired, even though he rose on the third day. It does look like we have some symbolism here for the time spent in the tomb by the Savior, which again goes back to when we talk about the purpose of the Book of Mormon which is to point towards the Law, or point towards Christ.

They couldn’t include even one one-hundredth of a part of the writings that they wanted to. Remember the scripture in Helaman that listed all those items that could not be included. The passage in Alma 22 seems to fit one of those items. It is a description of geography. If they couldn’t include it, then why did they? I think it was included by Mormon. After the fact, he understood the geography, and he crafted it in a way that he knew he could reemphasize the message that was taught in the first half of the chapter, which was the conversion of a king, or the Plan of Salvation. It is a narrow strip of wilderness that separates the righteous from the wicked. It is a narrow neck that separates life from death. Now is the day for our repentance. It is a spiritual message that is being taught, and everything in the Book of Mormon is teaching a spiritual message.

BMAF has always said that ultimately our goal would be to get people excited about reading the Book of Mormon and to look to getting a better understanding of the messages being taught. The geography, the culture, and the history are all fascinating, but it is even more fascinating when it helps us to understand the deeper spiritual messages, when it points towards the most important message of the Book of Mormon, which is the message of our Savior.

In 2 Nephi 25:26, it discusses what we hope to accomplish by studyding the Book of Mormon. “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.”

Everything in the Book of Mormon testifies of Christ. There are passages that talk about the climate, the history, and the geography.

There are a lot of things, when we get into Book of Mormon geography, that can be confusing. We often hear people bring up a lot of statements by leaders of the church to argue one point or another. The Church does not have an official stance on Book of Mormon geography nor do they consider it to be a doctrinal issue. So it is something that is left open to study.

Joseph Smith in The Times and Seasons said it would not be a bad plan to investigate the work of Stephens and Catherwood. I don’t say that to imply that he was talking about the Mesoamerican region specifically. I say that because he thought that it would be something interesting tostudy. I don’t think that he was trying to imply his personal thoughts of where he thought the Book of Mormon actually took place. He was just saying that this would be an interesting place to compare. In other words, I think he was saying that this is an open subject, as opposed to his saying that this is not a doctrinal issue or one that is not necessary for our salvation. If we approach it from this manner and look at what spiritual insights we can gain, then it is of value to study Book of Mormon geography. 

As we look over time, it is interesting to see how the thoughts of members of the Church as to the geography of the Book of Mormon have changed and evolved over time. I think in the beginning, pretty much everyone thought that the Nephites occupied all of the Americas. They had them landing in South America and had them ending in upper state New York or in the larger region of the Northeast, with everything in between setting the stage for different parts of the Book of Mormon.

It wasn’t until people started looking at the internal distances in the scriptures themselves, remember we are not given actual distances but the time that it takes to travel, we find that we are looking at a place of a distance of less than 22 or 23 days’ travel from the Land of Nephi to the Land of Zarahemla. Now that puts it in a pretty small range, probably less than three hundred miles. There could be some debate to either side of that depending on the efficiency of your transportation, but we are talking about a very small area, compared to what a lot of the early theories in the Church were bringing up.

950 out of 1,000 years takes place at Nephi or Zarahemla or some point in between. So we are talking about a very limited region. In recent years, Mesoamerica is where a lot of the research has focused, and there are still varying theories within this region. Rather than talking about whether they landed in South America or in Mesoamerica, most of the debate today centers on, for example, whether they landed on the boundary line here or a few miles to the south where certain artifacts have been found. Again, as a forum, we are not going to come out and say exactly where those locations are. We are going to help present a lot of that information, but I think it is interesting to note that a lot of these theories being presented have a lot more in common with each other than not. 

One of the major landmarks that must be considered is the River Sidon. Some scholars are interested in the Grijalva area and some  are interested in the Usumacinta area, homes of two of the largest rivers in the region, but it is important to note that the headwaters of both rivers are in the exact same location, and where they end is pretty much in the same location. While there are some differences, there is a lot of agreement, and that is exciting. Ultimately, the more we learn and the more information that becomes available about this region, the more we can enhance our understanding of the Book of Mormon.

As far as the exact areas, we are talking about a limited region. It is called the limited Tehuantepec region, and there are various theories within that area. We know that we have to have a sea to the east and a sea to the west. Nephi and Zarahemla are going to be divided by a narrow strip of wilderness that runs all the way from the sea east to the sea west and round about on the borders of the seashore.

The question becomes then, what is that narrow strip? the Book of Mormon in Spanish, translates it as a narrow strip of desert. That is an interesting translation, because when I think of the narrow strip of wilderness, I don’t necessarily think of a desert. There may be some who do, but the word wilderness simply means an uninhabited area. If you look at the other clues in Alma 22, as well as other clues throughout the Book of Mormon, we know that every time you go from the Land of Nephi to Zarahemla you are going down in elevation. We know that the headwaters of the River Sidon are in that narrow strip of wilderness. So if we must have a river coming out of that narrow strip, it makes the desert seem a little less likely, and now we have to go down in elevation. What most scholars are considering today is that it is talking about a mountain range. Perhaps one of the most agreed-upon features in the geography is a mountain range that runs from the east to the west seas that divides the elevation, making it much higher in the south and lower in the north, which can be confusing because we like to talk about things in terms of going up to Idaho and coming down to Utah, whereas, when they were going north, they were going down in elevation, and when they were going south, they were going up. So we are probably not talking about desert.

When we are talking about the narrow neck of land, this is one where I know there is a difference of opinion among scholars, but it is a feature that divides that land northward and the land southward. In talking about which events that took place, most of the events that we are discussing took place inthe land southward. We do get Jaredite, or Olmec, history from the land northward, and events that took place in the latter end of the Book of Mormon also took place there. There are also migrations prior to the time of Christ that went into that region. But in Alma 22, there are some misleading things about the land northward. You think that it being a land of desolation, that nothing would be there, not even population. However it was not called, the Land of Desolation because it was desolate, but rather because of the great destruction that occurred there. When we are symbolically talking about desolation, we are talking about death, but it is believed to be in an area that was growing and green. In fact, one of the regions that is most commonly proposed to be the Land of Desolation is the Veracruz-gulf coast region, which is one of the greenest, most fertile areas in Mexico.

Copyright 2005, Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, a non-profit organization. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Williams. Ryan