Making Adjustments

Atheist demigod Richard Dawkins has said that in the face of science, religion always retreats. This is probably true to some extent. For example, a century or two ago, few of us would have worried about the historicity of the global Deluge. Confronted by the overwhelming evidence from geology and archaeology (and all manner of other -ologies), most of us have learned to project some nuance on to the Genesis account. The same might be said of evolution, Big Bang cosmogony, brain science, ancient history, etc. We are rational creatures: when science shows beyond reasonable doubt that the earth is many billions of years old, we adapt our theology to fit. Mormons are generally pretty good at doing this.

Some people cry foul, mostly because in making these adjustments, something is invariably lost. The global Deluge may be shown to be an Iron Age myth (or semi-myth, if you prefer), but where does this leave our notion of scripture, and for Mormons, the ideas supposedly supported by modern scripture and modern prophets? Conservative believers justifiably worry over these theological adjustments.

They are not alone. Some writers, for example, have expressed their displeasure at what they see as the cavalier approach of Mormon apologists to the DNA question. In short, Book of Mormon defenders claim to lose no sleep over the East Asiatic DNA of American Indians because the Book of Mormon espouses only a limited infiltration of ancient America by Near Eastern migrants. In Sunstone, Metcalfe, Southerton, and Vogel have cried foul over this paradigm shift: Southerton, for example, has blasted the “uber-apologetics” that he claims inflicts all manner of collateral damage on Mormonism. If the Limited Geography card is to be played, he argues, it cripples the cherished (and prophetic) notion that the Indians are genetic heirs to the Lamanite promise. By making theological adjustments in the face of science, the tail allegedly ends up wagging the dog (Metcalfe’s phrase).

I would be interested to know what BCC readers think about these issues (and I recommend the Sunstone link above; Blake Ostler’s responses offer a counter-view to Southerton et. al.). In my own research I have found a case where Book of Mormon historicity can be supported, but only by relaxing a fundamentalist view of the Bible and embracing some form of the Documentary Hypothesis.

Kevin Barney has stated that Murphy and Southerton hold “the Book of Mormon only to a lowest common denominator, populist, folkloric reading.” Is Kevin playing fair? Is it really no sweat to brush aside what the introduction to the current Book of Mormon states (that the Lamanites are the “principal ancestors” of the Book of Mormon)?


  1. (I think the introduction ought to be brushed aside, but this isn’t a “no-sweat” proposition.)

  2. Peter LLC says:

    Is Kevin playing fair?

    I don’t know about fair, but Kevin’s foray into psychoanalysis is a weak spot in his response:

    Murphy and Southerton appear to be nice guys. They are sincere, and they believe in what they are doing…. When they learned that the hemispheric model was scientifically untenable, each experienced unfulfilled (unrealistic) expectations and an ensuing crisis of faith…. Now they desire to enlighten others under the banner of science.

  3. Ronan – Thanks so much for posting this interesting discussion. I am not a scientist or an academic (and I really have no idea what Peter LLC is trying to say above) but I am fascinated by these issues that constantly seem to challenge our faith. It forces us to really examine the basis for our faith. I am just now reading Terryl Givens’ book “By the Hand of Mormon” and find it interesting that when the Book of Mormon was first published the biggest controversy was not the theology purported in the book but the claim, by Joseph Smith and others, that it was an historic record of the American continent.

    The DNA issue certainly poses a serious challenge to what many of us have been taught and believed throughout our lives in the church. But for me, it is simply one more thing that I will put on the list of issues I don’t understand. Ultimately that issue, like so many others found in the Bible and Book of Mormon that seems to be contradicted by scientific evidence, is not the basis for my faith. For me it is something deeper that cannot be explained with facts and evidence. To be sure, I am a skeptic and I love it when physical evidence bears out my faith but it is a crisis of this nature that prove to me that my faith is not based on that evidence but rather, it is born of the Spirit. And I thank you for helping me understand that concept.

  4. Was gossiping with a Welsh academic the other day, who proposed that Dawkins is just every UK Chemistry teacher writ large. The self-important and self-obsessed messenger of empirical science and haranguer of religion. Was a great image.

    It’s not just science that we respond to, though, Ronan. I think the silly little men like Dawkins want us to believe that religion is overwhelmed by big strong science (some kind of sci-fi domination romance crap going on), but the fact of the matter is that we are responding to many currents, social, spiritual, cultural, “scientific” and so on. God and the religions that address him are vibrant, living, breathing, growing entities.

    And incidentally this kind of adaptability is considered a vital characteristic of science.

  5. lamonte,

    As I see it, the response by FARMS and FAIR is strong: there is simply no reason to expect that the DNA of the Lehites would show-up in the wider, pre-existing American population. So, the Book of Mormon emerges unscathed. Really, it does.

    But the wider question is this: what happens to the “populist, folkloric reading” that has been favoured by most church members and leaders for years? We dump it yes, but at what cost for Amerindian Mormons who feel that they are the “principal” descendants of Lehi?

    And for my own research, I think Mormon scripture comes across stronger in the light of a more liberal reading of the Bible, but unfortunately Mormons became biblical fundamentalists in the past century, so sometimes it can be jarring to hear this. (I wish to be coy because I’m presenting a paper on this this year and want to maintain some element of surprise (!), but the issue is this: one reading of the evidence for Book of Mormon historicity would require us to relax the “Mosaic” authorship of the Pentateuch. It’s not the evidence per se that interests me now, but what it shows us about wider Book of Mormon studies. More in the future…)

  6. Sam,
    I wholeheartedly agree. But the problem with some religionists (and scientists) is that they think they have the Truth, when the Truth is simply what we are moving towards.

  7. Ronan,
    I think Kevin’s right. In my own reading (in high school no less), long before I knew that FARMS existed, the text of the BoM suggested a small group among others. Maybe cherished folklore is lost, but I never cherished that folklore, and I think our generation largely hasn’t internalized that. I don’t know what to make of this in broad strokes, whether this further divides us from our roots, but ours is a religion of progressive knowledge, and I feel good about that.

  8. An irony that Murphy has noted in his writings on the DNA evidence is that it places apologists and Murphy in a situation of debating about almost exactly the same historical hypothesis. Either the Book of Mormon events didn’t happen at all, as Murphy argues, or they happened almost nowhere — in a few hundred square kilometers of unspecified territory — as apologists now argue in the wake of largely distancing themselves from Sorenson’s more specific model. Either Lamanites never existed before the 19th century, as Murphy argues, or they almost never existed because there were only a few thousand of them.

    Either of these readings requires abandoning a fundamentalist approach to the Book of Mormon, a book that — for example — claims hundreds of thousands of battle deaths in a final confrontation that’s fictional from Murphy’s perspective or vastly exaggerated and make into folklore from the apologetic perspective. Either approach also requires abandoning any sense that Mormon church leaders consistently have special insight into scripture — since the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve have made statements, given prayers, and written letters from the perspective of the Hemispheric Model from the time of Joseph Smith to the time of Gordon B. Hinckley (as one example, a friend of mine has a letter over Hinckley’s signature from the 1990s explaining that the Hill Cumorah in New York was the site for the final battles of the Nephites and the Jaredites). This narrowing of the distance between critics and apologists has not, of course, been accompanied by any softening of rhetoric. I think the reason is that neither side actually cares about the history or the fine points of theology, in the end. All either side cares about is the question of whether God’s hand is in Mormonism. That question’s urgency and divisiveness is not at all affected by revisions of our Book of Mormon hermeneutics.

    I agree with Ronan and others that this evolution does indeed have very real costs. The most vehement — and bizarre — statement of these costs I’ve ever encountered is this must-listen Sunstone presentation by Clifton Jolley, The Indians Are Lamanites, but the Los Angeles Times Is Not: An Alternate Interpretation of DNA Results and Promises Made to the Chosen People of the Americas. From my perspective, the church in Latin America is just sitting on a powderkeg. If and when the limited-geography perspectives become widely known there, major features of many church members’ self-concepts and understandings of sacred history will face a giant crisis — far bigger and harder to resolve than anything any of us Anglos have ever run into.

  9. Ronan: I have already staked out my view, but I think that your question about the “folk-loric” view that dominates Mormon discourse is important. I suspect that the vast majority of LDS start out with what I will call, following Paul Ricoeur, a “first level naivte”. They absorb the culturally prevalent overbelief that the Book of Mormon teaches that all Amerindians are of Hebrew descent and therefore are a chosen people.

    It is only when the first level of naivte is challenged by noticing dissonant evidence that moving toward the critical stance occurs for most (I suspect). Then there is a move to “second level naivte” which adopts a more critical assessment. At this stage of movement in belief there are two possiblities: (1) modify the belief structure to accomodate the new evidence; (2) reject the belief structure as inadequate. Those at FARMS and FAIR argue that (2) is a viable and important step in faith. I believe that it is also. However, many have chosen (1). With respect to DNA, it seems to me that it doesn’t show what those who make the DNA argument think it does. It doesn’t disprove the Book of Mormon because (I argue) no one can take the book seriously and adopt a continental model. Anyone who takes the book seriously will adopt a Limited Geography model (“LGT”) because that is what the text requires to make sense of it — and so does the DNA, linguistic, etc. evidence.

    However, adopting the LGT of the Book of Mormon entails that not all Amerindians are of Hebrew descent. That could have a dissonant effect for those who believe they are more special in God’s eyes if they are of Hebrew descent. But who really believes that? Christianity rejected such assessments in the first century (especially Paul) and adopted the doctrine of adoption to take the place of literal descent.

    The bigger problem is that moving to second level naivte requires a more humanistic notion of revelation. It requires rejecting prophetic inerrancy and uniformity of textual statements as if the bible and all scripture form a single tapestry of logically consistent views revealed directly by God word for word. I know people in my ward who still harbor such beliefs — and they are wonderful people. But that kind of faith will be upset the first day in a class on critical theory of the Bible — or at least it ought to be in my view.

    The biggest problem is that such an approach means that scholarship about the scriptures might have something valuable to say and prophets might have something different but (still valuable) to say.

    As for Dawkins and others who make similar arguments — his view of religion in general and Christianity in particular is a kind of third grade level of engagment. The straw man that he disembowels looks nothing like the religion presented by the rich tradition of theological writings of Christians. The arguments he attacks reflect a failure to engage Christianity’s theological legacy and its wealth of brilliant thinkers. I find that the same tactic is very often used by those who attack the LDS faith and assume a form of fundamentalist assumption that makes no contact at all with my faith. Unfortunately such arguments do make contact with those still growing through the first level naivte or who are just transitioning to a second level naivte.

  10. Blake,
    I fully agree with you, except this:

    adopting the LGT of the Book of Mormon entails that not all Amerindians are of Hebrew descent. That could have a dissonant effect for those who believe they are more special in God’s eyes if they are of Hebrew descent. But who really believes that?

    If JNS is right, a lot of South American and Polynesian LDS believe that, and it is something that is still reinforced, apparently.

  11. Ronan: I agree that many believe it. I agree that it may have a dissonant effect for them.

    However, such a view ought to be rejected on other grounds. How can having a Hebrew descent really make someone more special? When that belief is put starkly in the light it evaporates quickly. Like I said, Christianity faced this issue in the first century very early and it adopted the doctrine of adoption into the chosen people to make eveyone possibly chosen and part of the covenant people. I don’t think that it will be too difficult to address — but it ought to be corrected and addressed. Much more difficult to address is the special status we accord to prophets’ comments on scriptural interpretations. Even though we don’t believe in prophetic infallibility, it is still a prevalent assumption. I admit that I don’t engage that assumption unless the prophet claims some special revelatory status for such interpretations — and even then I believe that they are filtered through the prophet’s own categories of thought and ability to grasp what is revealed.

    Just how painful the move from first level naivte to second level naivte will be for those who harbor such beliefs will depend on how open their belief structure is. Nevertheless, it is an important transition.

  12. Latter-day guy says:

    An interesting note on the DNA thing (sorry if it’s off-topic):

    One of my professors at the Y is convert of three years who only chose BYU over Harvard because he could go skiing here. He is a population geneticist, studying genetic trends and migrations. We spent a whole day in class on the Lamanite DNA issue (he was teaching D&C – I am no biologist).

    Anyway, he explained that the arguments used to “disprove” the BOM were simply bad science. Two of the studies that brought the issue to light were done by a plant geneticist and an anthropologist, respectively. They were not trained in studying population shifts.

    He was also often away from class doing work for different agencies; he was on some type of board to decide who got US money for research. During one of these trips, he approved a study that was actually looking at (I beleive) the DNA in different ethnic populations. While reading their preliminary research he noticed (even though it wasn’t one of the stated aims of the project) that they had recorded some interesting DNA markers which corresponded between Native Americans and ethnicities from the Near East.

    I know that he has published on this and I will try to find out of any of it is online.

  13. Rob Osborn says:

    I think it is quite fair to say that the biggest threat to science is religion itself! On top of that we could also conclude that scientific evidence in the hands of Christian bible believers will be the downfall of modern scientific ideaologies! It’s no wonder there are multimillion dollar lawyer scoundrel foundations that want to keep God out of things!

    Personally I do not think that religion has to retreat in the face of the worldwide deluge because it really happened, the same can also be said for special creation- it really happened! As far as the earth being billions of years old- the truth is, the matter has always existed so try putting a date on that!

    Was the Nephite/ Lamanite located in a small or large area? Whats wrong with the DNA issues? These are all questions that if one lacks faith he may find himself easily on the other side. I think it is far harder to believe in a universal resurrection and immortality for all living things than these little issues you have brought up. In light of scientific evidence, you cannot possibly believe in something coming back to life after it has been dead for thousands of years let alone then having it live in an immortal condition thereafter. But then you see- that is really the core “belief” of Christianity and we should dare not question that!

    So I guess it really all comes down to belief and faith. I have run into way too many people who say that special creation and the worldwide deluge cannot possibly be true and then in the same breath they say that they most definately believe in a universal resurrection- something that has never been validated by the same science that says the deluge and creation are just myths!

    Do we know exactly what DNA every person had that came with both Lehi and the Mulekites? Do we also not know exactly what other nations have since over-run the Americas since the great last battles of the BoM? So if we cannot possibly answere these basic questions, why debate them as if we know exactly what we possibly cannot? It all comes back to faith and belief. Are we a church that is goverened by faith or scientific results? If we rely on the same science that says that God is a mythical being, we just may be hanging our faith on the vain abitions of our ever increaing godless society!

  14. Blake, Mormonism does have some tradition of teaching that different sacred lineages have different “callings.” The Book of Mormon contains promises for Lamanites. Our patriarchal blessings sort us by lineages. This is more of an issue for us than it would be for, say, Catholics.

  15. Of course, the critics are not playing fair either. They say that apologists have moved the goalposts and that this disturbs some cherished Mormons notions. But honestly, would they think it any less disturbing for Mormons if the apologists admitted defeat?! I think they care a little less about an LDS Maori identity crisis, and a little more about the rhetorical stick they can beat apologists with.

  16. It is clear I’m way out of my league in terms of the practice you’ve all had studying, reconciling and debating the quirks in our religion, but I hope to hear more about the issue Blake glanced at in #11.

    It seems that several of you, who obviously have invested a lot of time thinking deeply about these things, are comfortable discarding “prophetic fallibility” as a non-issue. But for average Church members, there is no mistake that when SWK implies American Indians are Lamanite descendants, they are literally Lamanite descendants. Most of us don’t have the intellectual capacity to back out of that line of thinking in order to settle faithfully into your new line of reasoning; even if the OLD records support it, the implication is that our prophetic leadership in the interim has been called into question.

    Perhaps this is related to the first- and second-level naivte spoken of above, but I have to assume that a great many people, when forced by dissonant evidence to undertake a transition they didn’t seek out, will fall short of the satisfactory, faith-allowing position you seem to have attained.

    I guess I’m saying, for people like you this may be a non-issue, but for a great many others this is the sort of thing that leaves us gasping for air, wishing like crazy we believed your interpretation enough to feel what we once felt.

  17. In line with #17, I think the amount of sweat involved depends on the degree of prophetic authority behind the change. Mormonism has ability to adapt and to accept new information from outside sources, particularly when pushed by the leadership.

    However, although we accept the notion of prophetic fallibility, the prophets themselves publically invoke the notion only slightly more often than the scriptural provision for a literal descendant of Aaron to be a bishop without counselors. Under such conditions, we should not be surprised at the sweat.

  18. Is it less disturbing to find out about British Israelism and that I may not have Semitic DNA than it is for a Native American to find out that they don’t have predominantly semitic DNA?

    Is the transition from fundamentalist view of the Scripture to a more liberal interpretation any less jarring than, say, the concretization of the Godhead in Mormon thought?

    Mormonism is and always has been dynamic. Differing perspectives are the rule, not the exception (even in the Governing Quorums).

  19. Ungewiss, for people like that I can only say one thing – their faith is weak and they have other Gods (such as science or pride). I agree with Ronan that Mormonism handles (and even demands) a more liberal reading of the Bible than literalism. That goes for the whole idea of Scripture. Isn’t that one of the criticisms against Mormonism by Evangilical Christians?

    One of the great possibilities with Mormonism is that we don’t know everything. The Bible is not the last word of God, the Book of Mormon is not the last word of God, and even modern Prophets are not the last word of God. Science, even, is not the last word of God. We grow in knowledge and faith, but those who become stagnant lose the faith that they have.

    One of the basic teachings of Mormonism is that we learn line upon line, here a little and there a little and beyond. On top of that Brigham Young’s famous saying is that Mormonism accepts all truth – no matter where it comes from. The difficulty with that last part is determining what is truth.

    Here is the problem with the critic’s statements that apologists have made a retreat. They found the Book of Mormon is a limited geography long before the DNA question ever came up (although ancestory questions were always there). If you read some of what Joseph Smith says later in life, there is a hint that even he started to change his ideas about where the events in the Book of Mormon occured, shifting to Central America. For those who believe in the Book of Mormon (and not the “folk-myths”) there is no problems with the DNA issue as it is ultimately a side issue. The Book of Mormon istelf questions the whole idea of lineage as special.

    Joseph Smith said he had a hard time teaching the people because they had too many preconcieved ideas that they refused to let go. I have a feeling we have not changed one bit. The apologists aren’t prophets to be sure. They are most likely wrong about even their own theories. However, changing our perspectives and learning new things is even one of our articles of faith. It is only when we lose the core of our beliefs, and not rethink the perifery, that we go too far.

  20. Randy B. says:

    Stapley (#20), I think many and perhaps even most current Mormons would chafe at the notion that Mormonism is still (or ever was) dynamic. Ditto for the idea that it is okay to accept perspectives that differ in any meaningful way from those in the Governing Quorums. The question is not whether your assessment is right (I think it is) but whether your view is widely held.

  21. Just a quick couple of thoughts:

    Blake points out that Christian’s have adopted (pun intended) the doctrine of adpotion as a way of getting around the whole “We’re not Hebrew, but we get the same blessings” sort of deal.

    Whenever this notion of the specialness of the Lamanites
    is brought up, and the conflict of faith that they will feel if they ever accept and adopt a LGT sort of view of their origins, I always wonder about that: Most adult active Mormons have been told they are direct descendants of one of the twelve sons of Jacob. We don’t have any issues accepting this as part of our faith tradition, even though our DNA will surely never be able to reveal our descedancy from Jacob, even though Joseph and Brigham both made statements about our blood being directly from Jacob, etc.

    It’s quite simply become a non-issue, even though it was very important to Joseph and Brigham that we were direct descendants of Jacob, and even though the blessings promised to those descandants are still extremely important to us theologically as a Church, as JNS rightly points out.

    So, why is it so hard to believe a similar theological leap couldn’t be made about all the Native inhabitants of the Americas? Note that a: the doctrine of adoption could just as readily apply to them being descendants of Lehi as it adopts us into Jacob’s family. Additionally, much of the language about Lehi’s (and the Lamanites) blessedness has to do with the Promised land to which they were led: it is often (perhaps nearly always?) the land itself which is blessed. Since the people living in the Americas when the Europeans finally got there were obviously inhabitants of the land, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume they automatically get the blessings of the Lamanites based on some of the statements in the Book of Mormon, regardless of genetic origin?

    Please note that I don’t necessarily commit myself to these positions, I’m just saying that it seems plausible that if a widespread realization of genetic asian-ness hit the South American Mormon church, I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these notions took hold.

    Furthermore, given this recent post on BCC, is it really that hard to believe that a population of Lamanites, though small in comparison to the rest of the American inhabitants, couldn’t spread it’s genetic material around a little bit? Or even a lot bit?

  22. This discussion goes to a basic assumption that I have about the Book of Mormon. I have in the past been concrned about the geography and other dissonant elements of the BOM, but a few years ago (okay, actually about 17), it struck me that in light of my reading of the Book of Mormon, it ultimately is a question of faith. When viewed in light of the overall plan of salvation, we know that this life is a test, and that empirical evidences of the BOM and the Bible, along with many other elements of our religion, removes faith from the equation.

    The key message of the Book of Mormon is a new testament of Christ. Faith is required, and grace is supplied, through adherence to its’ teaching and doctrines. 2 Nephi chapter 2 tells us that there must be opposition in all things, and Joseph Smith taught us that truth is found in proving contraries.

    If I have concrete evidence of the historicity and authenticity of the Book of Mormon, then faith is removed from the discussion, and it no longer has power to change my life in the way that is required for exaltation. So while I am fascinated by these discussions, I ultimately come back to the discussion in Alma 32 about trying our faith, and nurturing it so that it grows.

    I realize that this is more of a doctrinal response than scholarly, but it has been a huge help to me for years. If the straight and narrow path is marked with unmistakable road signs, then no faith is required, and it’s the wrong path.

    That brings into question how we have taught Book of Mormon principles in the past. Have we been teaching faith, or trying to prove it only by reason? Both are required, but for me faith is the trump card.

  23. I don’t get how feeling betrayed after simply believing what a prophet said constitues weak faith.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    I came to a limited geography, others-in-the-land view of the BoM in 1979, in my first area on my mission (IE when I first started to read the text seriously). This was long before DNA was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. LDS scholars had taken such a position long before I came to it.

    What I particularly objected to in my Antropology News piece is that Murphy and Southerton were representing their DNA studies as disproving the BoM on the backs of science. And that simply hasn’t happened, and I called them on it, and Anthropology News published my response.

    Peter LLC is right, I shouldn’t have speculated on what they were thinking or how they came to their position. I don’t know. But it seems likely to me that they were reacting to their own naive understandings of BoM geography and populations, without bothering to check mainstream Mormon scholarship on the issue. So what they were really doing (and their supporters since then) was making a religious argument, not a scientific one. According to that argument, simplistic belief that no others were in the land and the Lehites and other BoM groups are pretty much the sole ancestors of American Indians and the BoM narrative spans the whole of the Americas is sacrosanct and cannot be changed by scholars. Well, that’s an argument you can make, but it doesn’t constitute scientific proof against the historical authenticity of the BoM.

    (Also, there is a difference between the Lamanites being the principal ancestors of American Indians, which I don’t buy, and American Indians being descended from Lehi, which strikes me as very possible. Those are two entirely different claims.)

  25. Latter-day guy says:

    Here’s the link to the BOM / DNA article. The BYU professor’s name is Keith Crandall.

  26. Kevin Barney says:

    Oops, I accidentlally posted that and wasn’t finished with it.

    If someone wants to believe in the simplistic view of the BoM, that is her right. But don’t ask me to put on my apologist’s hat and defend that point of view. I don’t believe it, so why should I have to defend it? If the Church wants to force me to believe the simplistic, folkloric picture of the BoM, then I have no choice but to conclude the BoM is not authentic history. But, fortunately for me, the Church stays out of BoM geography issues, and I’m perfectly free to accept a LGT theory. If someone wants to hold to a hemispheric no-others-in-the-land theory, that doesn’t bother me, but don’t ask me to defend it.

  27. Kevin: (Also, there is a difference between the Lamanites being the principal ancestors of American Indians, which I don’t buy, and American Indians being descended from Lehi, which strikes me as very possible. Those are two entirely different claims.)

    Very much agreed.

  28. Latter-day guy says:

    Sorry, here is the link.

  29. Kevin Barney says:

    Latter-day guy, I remember that Dialogue article. It was a very good piece, as I recall.

  30. We don’t fully understand this problem from an Anglo-American perspective. I started with a similar dismissive stance toward the mainstream Latin-American view of this problem, but have since come to understand that deeper issues than feeling “special” are involved. One is that the church has repeatedly taught indigenous (and in some cases merely Latino) members throughout the Western Hemisphere that their ancestors — living in the places they lived — were central participants in the Book of Mormon drama. The promises in question are relevant to the dilemma — and I have some ideas, to be shared elsewhere, about how they should be generalized given new understandings — but equally relevant is an issue of trust. A central message of the church, given by representatives from missionaries up to presidents, in Latin America has been that the Americas are Book of Mormon lands and the Book of Mormon is the pre-history of indigenous peoples. Learning that many within the church no longer think this is so becomes not just a question of pride, but also a question of trust.

    I’ve heard scores of members in South America express testimonies that the Book of Mormon happened “here” (in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, etc.). So the trust in question is not just trust in the church — although it certainly is that — but trust in personal revelation. This is a big deal. I hope we can discuss this without mocking those who hold beliefs we have abandoned.

  31. Jared* (#25), I don’t know that “weak” is the right word. In a comparable context, Compton uses the word “shallow.” It’s still a loaded term, to be sure, but I think it comes closer to the mark.

    Here’s Compton —

    “[T]he gospel is more complex, and more beautiful, and possessing more depth, than extreme conservatives give it credit for. When they create an oversimplified, narrow, sentimentally idealized, shallow view of the gospel, and orient their faith toward that oversimplified view, obviously the primary historical documents, and anyone who reflects those primary documents honestly, will undermine such shallow faith. The fault is not the historian who reflects that complexity of historical reality in line with the documents in the archives and the infinite complexity of true faith. The fault is the extreme conservatives who live by, and demand that others accept, an oversimplified view of the gospel.

    Granted, many church members and leaders accept such oversimplified views of the gospel, and strive to make to make such views the ‘official,’ untouchable version. But to the extent they do, they are doing the church and their faith a disservice, because they are propounding a version of faith that is unworkable.

    To give an example. According to one of his biographers, Joseph Smith was about six feet tall. Let’s say that a church member — who sincerely wants to build people’s faith — decides he will portray Joseph Smith as 6 foot 7 inches in a historical movie. This is incorrect, but the 6 foot 7 idea catches on, becomes current in the church. To some people, Joseph Smith as 6 foot 7 becomes a cherished part of their testimony. However, a historian — who let’s say is also a church member — comes across Joseph Smith’s burial record, that gives his height correctly as about 6 foot. The historian publishes an article showing Joseph Smith’s true height. The media picks up the story and the movie writer, believing he has a mission as a defender of the faith, denounces the historian as malevolently diminishing people’s faith in Joseph Smith.

    Now who is right and who is wrong in that situation? Who is honest and who is dishonest? Who is authentically diminishing faith: the writer of historical movies (who, motivated by sincere loyalty to the church and its missionary effort, orients church members’ faith on an untrue datum that will not hold up) or the historian who carefully reflects a document showing a true fact? Certainly, Joseph Smith seemingly has less stature based on the true facts, but only in reference to the inflated view of his height that was incorrect. The seeming experience of diminishment is the result of an incorrect inflation.”

  32. Given that essentially everyone today is a descendent of essentially everyone who lived a thousand or two thousand years ago, I have no problem believing that Lehi, Sariah, and their party are likely ancestors of virtually all native Americans (and probably ancestors of mine too). I am not sure what “principal ancestors” means. But I don’t recall anyone voting at conference on the addition of the explanatory introduction that included that language.

  33. Thomas Parkin says:


    Amen. And I wonder if the Lord meant us to find scattered and hidden Israel with DNA tests. Not that I don’t find it all interesting.

    One thing is sure, He will allow our faith to be tested to the utmost. I always recall that book itself states its incompleteness in order that our faith will be tested(3 Nep 26). It isn’t only a spiritual witness of the truth of the BoM (in reality, many many witnesses over a great deal of time), but in having submitted to a process of learning by study and faith; of having gotten “closer to God” by “abiding its precepts;” in other words, of having “Come Unto Christ” and of having one’s life full of the gifts of the Spirit daily, including and importantly, posessing charity; of having built on the sure foundation that real gospel living, as opposed to Mormon copycatting, so that when the rains come down and the floods come up, your house stands.

    I recall Pres Benson’s words that unless our testimony goes deep into the teachings of the BoM -by which I don’t think he meant only intense intellectual interest, but that we are ourselves altered in the living of them – that in the heat of the day, it would wither and die. And that, when I think of my brothers and sisters in the church, concerns me far more than the reality that sometimes prophets are wrong, or the BoM disguises it’s own historicity, or that science is also progressive and uncertain.

    As to Ronan’s point – I do personally make adjustments based on scientific and other evidence. The church maybe ought to, but that isn’t for me to say. For me, a lot of things are contingent. One of the potential probelms with our “I Know”, testifying, culture is that we sometimes have a problem saying what is just as often true, “I Don’t Know.” But there is no such thing as I Know that didn’t begin in I Don’t Know.


  34. Randy B.(#33),

    I basically agree with you. I just think we have to be careful about suggesting that the fault for feeling disturbed lies with the person who feels disturbed. Maybe sometimes it is, but overall I don’t think that is fair. For someone who takes the Church seriously, feeling disturbed can be a perfectly natural and understandable reaction, in my view.

  35. Kevin Barney: Fortunately for me, the Church stays out of BoM geography issues.

    Well not exactly, Kevin. Every church president from Joseph Smith to Gordon B. Hinckley has equated Lamanites with Indians, and I’m not sure they’ve done so using the one-Lehite-drop-in-the-American-sea model. There’s something more than LGT implied in this teaching.

  36. Thomas, re # 35,

    No question but that I have looked at the flood as being more limited, have a pretty liberal view of evolution, the fall, and other elements. I guess that Ronan’s point directed a spotlight at these “accomodations”. Have I rationalized my testimony based on reason? My first reaction is yes, but then I am somewhat embarrassed by that admission. I have a few things up on my doctrinal shelf, but Ronan’s assertion that something might be lost is a valid concern. I certainly have lost some innocence in my years in the church. The reality I have to fall back on is that I have had some experiences that I can only explain as personal revelation, and even miracles. Their “otherworldliness’ is shocking to my rational self, but ultimately compatible with my spiritual self. I haven’t really thought of myself as walking a tightrope, but now I’m taking a closer look around my footing, and making sure I don’t lose my “balance”.

  37. Kevin Barney says:

    Ronan, I didn’t mean that church leaders don’t make statements like that. I meant that Orson Pratt’s geographic notes were removed from the BoM, and the Church as an institution refused to take sides in the debate.

    I guess it’s kind of like evolution; lots of antagonistic statements from Church leaders, but institutionally the Church is neutral.

  38. Kevin,

    I knew what you meant re: geography, I’m just saying that the very popular notion (often forwarded by church leaders) that Lamanites = “Indians” (whether from Alaska or Patagonia), and the officially sanctioned “principal ancestor” introduction to the Book of Mormon lend credence to the suggestion (unless we do some mental acrobatics) that Lehite blood is a little thicker than is the case. And if Lehite blood is meaningfully “thick,” then the LGT is not entirely adequate.

    So, whilst the church is silent on stuff like Tehuantepec = the “narrow lack of land,” its past and present Lamanite teachings suggest something a little more than a “Rhode Island” Lehite colony. I’m not arguing against the LGT, but I think you underestimate a tad the ease with which this ought to be accepted among the rank and file.

    BTW, I think the church’s Lamanite teachings are less conspicuous then they once were. Would you agree? Is that deliberate?

  39. …I see it as vaguely analogous to the blacks and the priesthood issue. We cannot forget it by saying that the doctrine spun around it wasn’t official. That way, the problem festers.

    Ditto LGT.

    If Jose Latin American (Latino or Indian) is not much more Lehite than me (I have a Canadian ancestor whose line may have intermarried with a native American or two), who’s going to tell him? Should he be told?

    I trust JNS on this one when he says this is pretty entrenched stuff. And one with plenty of prophetic support.

    So, let’s teach LGT* (I do), but let’s also spare a thought for its effects. Is all.

    *But let’s choose a different acronym!

  40. Rob Osborn says:

    Sounds like this discussion has moved towards more of a “geography” issue, eh eh.

    I personally have made contact with FARMS in the past questioning their logic for a LG model and as of yet they have been unable to give me anything more than “well, pretty much all BoM scholars think this way”. The problems for a limited geographic model are really quite paramount in light of viewing “all” of the evidence and logic, for instance-

    According to the BoM, there were two major civilizations that colonized the Americas spanning a total of some 2500 years- a very long time! The Jaredites were the larger of the two civilizations and had a very extensive fettish with kingship and slavery of high ranking peoples. The language of both civilizations were drastically different enough that no Nephite had a clue as to what their writing meant. The end of the Jaredite civilization was of a great enough distance away from where the Nephites first started colonizing that it took hundreds of years for the blossoming and adventurous Nephites to find the remains of their massive civilization now in ruins, compare that with the european colonization and exploration of the Americas in the 1500-1800’s.

    Now let’s look at some of the facts. LGM researchers claim that both the Jaredite and Nephite shared writing and counting systems from each other- This claim is unsupportive in the BoM. LGM researchers claim that the Mayan were what could be called the Nephite and Lamanite peoples. Early Mayan ruins though predate the Nephites by almost a 100 years! This claim is backed with the above claim though that the Nephites used the same counting system as the jaredites and therfor what appears to be a Nephite city center was actually a Jaredite center or even a different group altogether. This claim now runs into the facts that the earliest Mayan ruins (pre-Nephite) are at the farthest south location in a LMG model and that the Jaredites never heavily populated certain areas that far south- they were more northward. This though is again refuted that there were obvious different peoples then- It really all starts to run in circles!

    Personally I do not know the locales for the BoM peoples, but I do believe that it was far greater than what most currently believe. Personally I believe that the Mayan structures that dot the Yucatan were Jaredite and that Most of the Nephite and Lamanite events took place in upper regions of South America and panama area. The Nephites who went “above” and beyond the land of desolation (yucatan and mexico) to settle (the ones who used “concrete”) are principly the four corner Indian peopls who used a form of concrete called adobe and timbers to build with. They cannot be the Mayan because remember the Mayan peoples were a warfarring nation that thrived on capturing and torturing kings (sounds like Jaredites!).

    After the demise of the Jaredites, no other nation possesed the land with as much sophistication in buildings and artistry in my opinion. Nephites generally used wood in their building as they used the ship building technology in their buildings which now would be totally disappeared. Remember also that the only account of structures standing the test of time were those of the Jaredites when the Nephites found them hundreds of years later- obviosly rock structred buildings.

  41. Questions... says:

    Regarding Kevinf’s comments (#24):

    Faith seems to be appropriate when dealing with matters that can’t really be proven or disproven using the tools of science and reason. For example, answering the question “Does God exist” in the affirmative requires faith, and as far as our present state of knowledge and understanding, it can’t be actively disproven. This seems to be a legitimate position to take, regardless of one’s own opinion on the matter.

    The problem with the Book of Mormon claims, however, is that it includes matters that are definitely within the realm of science and reason to prove or disprove. I’m not saying yet that it’s historicity has been definitively disproven, but if and when this happens, then all the faith in the world cannot restore its historicity.

    In the past, people’s faith has included their position on whether the Sun goes around the Earth, or vice-versa, another empirical claim. But when the facts became known, their faith was obviously unfounded, and had to be abandoned. My personal opinion is that Evolution and man’s physical origins are in the same category, and that faith is ultimately irrelevant to their truthfulness or lack of it.

    When Mormonism makes faith claims concerning physical, empirical events and facts, their truthfulness (or lack thereof) will ultimately be determined using the tools of science and reason, with faith again just not being relevant.

    If there is an appropriate place for faith in people’s lives, it needs to stay within its own realm, where its claims are at least legitimate, whether or not they are actually true.

    (P.S. There is a great quote that I can’t locate, basically stating that faith doesn’t require us to believe things that are false, or something along those lines. If anybody can point me to it, that would be greatly appreciated.)

  42. Though I hesitate to agree with Rob, there is very little in the text itself to make a Limited Geography Model compelling. One can read it there, but it is hardly the plainest reading of the text (that said, the strongest arguments for a LGM are those derived from considerations of how far a Nephite could legitimately travel in a day, IMO). While LGMs surfaced prior to the Lamanite DNA issue, one should not underestimate pre-DNA problems with the hemispheric model. LGMs are an outlook that developed out of a desire to accomodate other outside observations, even in the earliest forms.

  43. MikeInWeho says:

    This thread reminds me of something I’ve thought of before: The limited geography model is Mormonism’s version of intelligent design theory. I’m not sure that the LGM is a solid foundation, however, because the BoM’s claims and stories are quite clear. Fascinating to observe the dialogue here, though.

    Where do you think the Church is headed, Ronan? Will the Utah church ever-so-gradually inch toward the RLDS view of the Restoration scriptures?

  44. Questions,

    Thanks for your reply. I guess that what I am saying is that the value of the Book of Mormon for me is that it does exactly what Joseph Smith said it would, to bring me closer to God.

    I have not discounted the challenges of the historicity or accuracy of the Book of Mormon. As a believing member of the church (just stating my own paradigm), I have a picture of the plan of salvation, and right from the start, I have to take that on faith, as I don’t have any recollection or evidence, in the empirical sense, of the pre-existence. Nor do I have any empirical evidence of the resurrection or the hereafter either. Again, that has to be an act of faith.

    However, once I allow for faith, then a whole realm of possibility opens up for me. It gives me a chance to verify by spiritual means, just as described in Alma 32, these “faith-based” claims.

    Perhaps I need to better define Faith for you. It is not to me believing in the unbelievable. James Faulconer at BYU defined faith in terms of fidelity in an essay in the FARMS publication “Revelation, Reason, & Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman Madsen”. Fidelity has always been a powerful word for me, with it’s obvious application to marriage. When I think about faith and fidelity, it implies to me fidelity to God and his plan for us.

    My wife and I occasionally do things that drive the other crazy (or at least I know I do). However, fidelity (and grace) allows us to overlook and overcome slights in the grander scheme of becoming “one”.

    I have that same sense of fidelity (faith) towards God. That allows me to take in stride issues like the priesthood ban, polygamy, DNA evidence (or lack thereof), bad behavior by church leaders, and bad behavior of my own.

    Again, this attitude is admittedly more doctrinal than scholarly, but we are dealing with an intersection of the temporal and the spiritual, whether it’s the LGM model, evolution, or biblical literalism. So, for me, I have to balance what I know by reason with what I learn by faith. So far, it’s worked out okay for me. This may not work for others with more fidelity to reason. I’m not being pejorative about that, I just know we all seem to come wired differently. For some, the statements of the prophets are always to be trusted absolutely. Experience has shown me that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and why should the average apostle or prophet be any different? So I may tread a middle ground that isn’t comfortable for everyone. I just wanted to define what faith is for me.

  45. We need to clear about the LGT. As I understand it, it means that the Book of Mormon events took place within a relatively small area, probably in Central America AND that the Lehites were assimilated into a preexisting civilisation within a few decades of their arrival.

    We have to intepret the text in this manner in order to make it consistent with the external evidence. I must say that I am surprised that so many of you seem to suggest that this is the natural reading of the text. I am still struggling mightily to make the text say what the apologists say it says. It is pretty hard for me to accept that interpretation as the most plausible reading of the text given the lack of any mention of these other people and the references to the promised land and prophecies with respect thereto which seem so clearly to point to the USA.

  46. Questions... says:


    I appreciate (and accept) your clarification of how you approach things, and certainly agree that people seem to be “wired” differently, which will effect how they value different approaches to truth, their judgments, decisions, etc.

    As I tried to point out, I have no quarrel with faith itself, especially as you have defined it. But I am concerned when some apply it to, or even to some degree base their faith on, claims about physical events and facts. If and when those claims prove false, their faith will no longer be viable. Ironically, this may then cause them to lose faith in other matters, which might in fact be more deserving of being called Truth.

    I can respect your being brought closer to God by reading the BoM, and have no quarrel here either. The problem is that the Church has pretty much staked out its territory as to the book’s origins and historical validity. As per my first post, this then puts faith outside its natural domain, and creates the real potential for loss of faith if/when those claims are disproved.

    I can also respect your “middle ground” position, as that seems almost inevitable for many of us, since none of us is in full possession of what’s true.

    Finally, Alma 32 is often on my mind, and in fact I initiated a thread on the Sunstone Blog concerning it a month or two ago. It too concerns the relationship between religious faith and historical and physical facts. I have no problem with people reading, and living, the principles of the Gospel, and on the basis of their inner experience, deciding that these are valid prinicples, which enable them to get closer to their God. But when they draw conclusions about historical events or other physical and empirical matters, based on their inner experiences, then their faith has stepped outside its legitimate realm, and is no longer on a sure footing, and likely to be lost.

  47. Thomas Parkin says:


    I agree with you, generally. But I question the degree to which the BoM makes claims that are subject to empircal evidence. The timeline and geography of the BoM are sometimes precise, sometimes much less so – and, importantly, never really the point.

    Consider these possible “imperfections” in the BoM: Joseph mistranslates land northward for land southward in every instance; mistranslates one hundred days journey as ten days journey; mistranslates thousands as tens of thousands; mistranslates eight hundred years as four hundred years. Or, any combination of these and any number of others. Such mistakes do nothing to the spiritual purpose of the book, but make empirical testing of its historical authenticity impossible. Not only might God have allowed such mistakes, but may actually encouraged them, creating the altogether different beast that the BoM presents us with – the truth of which is entirely a matter of personal revelation under specified conditions. From a faith based perspective, or spiritually gained testimony, where there is no empirical evidence to coorborate BoM stories, either the BoM could be wrong, or the empiricval evidence incomplete.

    I know this must drive empiricists to distraction -but I think is why for many of us, it’s all water off the ducks back.

    You know … *shrug*


  48. I argue for the BoM as an archetype of seerhood, which represents the quest to recover the voices of the dead. I believe that model could provide a reasonable approach for maintaining the sacred feelings that people associate with Indian lineage without requiring particular theories about geography or historicity. In this line, even with limited geography (the Where’s Waldo? model of Lehite Immigration or WWMLI–is that a better name for you, Ronan?), the BoM is the story of America’s dead because that is what Joseph Smith made it rather than because modern Amerind peoples are identifiably the genetic descendants of ancient Semites. Incidentally, I believe my model applies regardless of historicity.

  49. Atheist demigod Richard Dawkins has said that in the face of science, religion always retreats.

    what’s ignored here is that in the face of new science, old science always retreats.

    false dichotomy…

  50. Questions,

    I recall your comments on the Sunstoneblog. I don’t want to threadjack here, so I am going to try and frame this in terms of our discussion about whether or not the accommodations to our view of the historicity of the BOM based on new empirical evidence brings into question our basic beliefs about the church.

    What I seem to be hearing you say is that faith is fine, until faced with any kind of empirical evidence, or especially if we try to link specific events and experiences to our faith. In other words, I seem to hear you say that in your paradigm, reason always trumps faith, and faith had best leave the realm of the physical/temporal world alone. Correct me if I am wrong.

    Going back to Alma 32, if I have positive experiences from trying my faith in reading and applying the BOM to my life, I am supposed to chalk it all up to coincidence, because all of the claims about the BOM can’t be proven?

    Or similarly, if I give (or receive) a blessing to alleviate a migraine headache, and it goes away, that’s not a valid experience of faith?

    I’m trying hard to understand here. Likewise, if DNA evidence can’t prove that all American Indians have traces of middle eastern genetic markers, then the BOM is only a nice story that makes me feel good?

    I await your response. I have to head out of work in a while, and will not get back to the blog for a couple of hours, so if I’m late, it’s because I am eating dinner here in about an hour.

  51. Questions... says:

    I do see your point, Thomas. It just seems to me that “the writing is on the wall.” Apologists, or just plain faithful members, are having to go through increaslingly creative mental gymnastics to salvage the historical claims of the BoM. Time will tell, but I am persuaded that sooner or later the historicity of the BoM will no longer be tenable, going the way of the geocentric universe. Perhaps it can be transformed into an inspired, spiritual document, but that’s a subject for a different thread.

    My main point is that people’s faith is better off founded in the appropriate ‘realm of faith’ rather than being based on empirically falsifiable claims about things occurring in the physical world.

  52. Questions... says:


    I find your questions very helpful in defining what I’m trying to say here.

    “I seem to hear you say that in your paradigm, reason always trumps faith, and faith had best leave the realm of the physical/temporal world alone.”

    Reason will trump faith when it comes to answering questions about the physical/temporal world, because that is its ‘domain’ (for lack of a better word). Faith is often inappropriately applied to the physical/temporal world (e.g. the geocentric universe, the origin of the human physical body, etc.), and has to be abandoned when science and reason provide more accurate answers. So in this type of scenario, reason does trump faith.

    “Going back to Alma 32, if I have positive experiences from trying my faith in reading and applying the BOM to my life, I am supposed to chalk it all up to coincidence, because all of the claims about the BOM can’t be proven?”

    Not at all, and I tried to address this situation when I said “I have no problem with people reading, and living, the principles of the Gospel, and on the basis of their inner experience, deciding that these are valid prinicples, which enable them to get closer to their God.” To me, this is the realm where faith may legitimately operate. The principles themselves are distinct from the historical claims of the book.

    “if I give (or receive) a blessing to alleviate a migraine headache, and it goes away, that’s not a valid experience of faith?”

    This is a very different situation, where I do challenge its validity as a manifestation of faith. In scientific inquiry, this is referred to as “anecdotal evidence” and you can’t prove cause and effect in this manner. Simply said, how do you know the headache would not have gone away without the blessing? Headaches do go away eventually. And then there’s the placebo effect, where people’s internal belief that something will help will produce physiological and biochemical changes in their bodies, which can then result in physical improvement.

    What I’m trying to get across is that faith may have its own realm of validity, in terms of internal, spiritual experiences and perceptions. When faith makes claims about the physical world, and how it operates, that is the domain of science and reason, and when push comes to shove, in this type of inquiry, reason does trump faith. The question of God’s existence seems to be a fundamental area for faith, where reason (used in the sense of scientific, empirical evidence and research) may or may not be applicable.

    This is interesting, in that as I’m trying to articulate this, I seem to be saying what Stephen J. Gould identified in his “Non-Overlapping Magesteria” concept, which I’m not sure I fully accept. But that too may be a topic for another thread.

    I genuinely hope this is helpful to you in better understanding what I’m trying to say, whether or not you end up agreeing with it.

  53. As a scientist and convert, to me this is a non-issue. The events of the Book of Mormon could have happened on another planet, even. It doesn’t matter where they happened. Where in the BoM does it say that these events happened on Earth on the continent of North America? I completely uncouple the questions of the genetic origin of native Americans and the truth of the Book of Mormon. It’s true, as we know from the witness of the spirit. It doesn’t matter how that fits in to science. I don’t use the BoM as an anthropology text.

    Science is one way of learning about the universe and religion is another. I don’t believe the two ever come into conflict, because they’re both teaching us about the same universe. Usually when people think they are, it’s because they’ve mistaken religious texts for science books. Understand that I believe that the BoM is literally true, the events actually happened. But the details of exactly when where and how are not important, and we aren’t told that stuff specifically. We’re told the story, in a way that we can learn what we’re meant to learn from it.

  54. Tatiana, “Where in the BoM does it say that these events happened on Earth on the continent of North America?”

    The introduction, which was directly approved by the 12… but yes, I agree with your point.

  55. Questions,

    Thank you for your answers. I submit that you and I will have to agree to disagree. I don’t know why sometimes miracles occur, but my experience is that they do. And I can’t answer why sometimes it happens for some and not others,

    Back to the issue then of the limited geography model of the BOM, if we have tried to tie ourselves to proving it through empirical means, then our testimonies are in trouble. Ronan’s earlier comparison to the priesthood ban and its rationalizations that still trouble us today is useful. For some members, there may be difficult days ahead. In this one sense, I would hoe that we agree. The Book of Mormon ultimately is about faith.

  56. I seriously question whether this is going to be as much of an issue for Polynesian, Native American or Latino members as some have suggested. In my (admittedly somewhat limited) experience with such members, none of them self-identify as Lamanites (unless the question is being asked in the context of whether they qualify for a Lamanite scholarship at BYU). Moreover, if any members are basing their belief in the gospel on a “specialness” derived from being literally descended from Lehi or anyone else, I say the sooner we start disabusing them of that notion the better.

  57. MQC, I agree.
    I’m Latino – or half, anyway – and I can honestly say that I couldn’t care less if I were a Lamanite or not. Its not even something I’ve ever thought about.
    That said, LDS people put so much emphasis on personal heritage, as if being descended from certain people somehow means something about how God sees you (i.e. – the ridiculous practice of noting when are descended from pioneers– as if that somehow mattered even one little bit). By that same token, I guess people think that being a direct descendent of Lehi matters?
    I’ve always had a problem with this way of thinking, since it seems to counter the notion that we are all children of God and that he loves us all. It shouldn’t matter to the so-called Lamanite populations that they are Lamanite or not, because that is hardly a rock upon which to build a testimony of the gospel.

  58. I appear to be dyslexic – that should be MCQ…

  59. Rosalynde says:

    Ronan, do you have an link or citation for the Dawkins dictum? Of course I’m familiar with the claim, but I’d be interested to see it in context. I personally find it much more difficult to dismiss the claims of Dawkins and the new atheism out of hand, as so many here apparently do.

    Dawkins has rightly pointed out that “God” often stands in for “that which we don’t understand”. When we cite the phenomenal growth of the church, the rapid production of the Book of Mormon, its apparent ancient Semitic textual features—phenomena which appear to defy natural explanations—as signs of the divine origin of the Restoration, we’re engaging in precisely this kind of logic. And it’s persuasive, for sure. But it very much affirms Dawkins’ argument: God lives in the gaps in human knowledge, and this real estate is shrinking.

  60. MikeInWeHo says:

    “….And it’s persuasive, for sure.”

    Only if you have already been converted. Otherwise, not at all these days. You know better, Rosalynde.

    There are many other faith groups which use the same logic to support very different theologies, with varying degrees of success. The Christian Scientists use rather similar language to undergird “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” for example. They’re in serious decline, from what I hear. One could also look to the Pentecostals, Islam, etc.

    I really don’t know what to make of all this. Dawkins’ observations seem largely correct, yet ultimately he does not persuade me. The only contemporary Christian thinker who resonates with me is John Shelby Spong, and even he seems a bit like an atheist in Anglican clothing.

  61. Rosalynde,
    I’ll try and find the reference.

    You asked:

    Will the Utah church ever-so-gradually inch toward the RLDS view of the Restoration scriptures?

    I recommend listening to the link JNS provides in #8 for a view on this.

  62. And the answer is no. The WWMLI lets us keep BoM historicity and absolves us of fretting about finding a distinct Nephite civilisation archaeologically.

    Also, the LDS church does not look at the RLDS church with envy.

  63. Only J. Stapley has acknowledged Kevin Barney’s statement in # 26 that there is a difference between the Lamanites being the principal ancestors of American Indians, which I don’t buy, and American Indians being descended from Lehi, which strikes me as very possible. Those are two entirely different claims.

    What do you make of this sentiment, RT? Does this view have the potential for solving the identity problem that you are concerned about?

  64. Rosalynde says:

    Mikeinweho, I disagree. I think God-in-the-gaps is intuitively persuasive, because for most of human history this is the function that God has performed: to provide a causal agency for the inexplicable. (Acts of God, etc.) As science has provided new explanations, and new kinds of explanations, this position becomes less tenable under scrutiny, but I don’t think it loses its intuitive appeal.

  65. Rosalynde, I think God in the gaps is only partially correct as a historical construct, and it’s potentially quite misleading in current application. Certainly for many Christians, God was inscrutable (implying that he himself was a gap), and the old saw about elemental animism as being the real representation of God or euhemerism/ancestor worship as the source of religion (dealing with our own mortality via projected immortality of the missing–another kind of gap) to my eye oversimplifies religion.

    as far as dismissing Dawkins’ Squawkins out of hand, I think that mischaracterizes at least me. I’ve read his stuff, and the new atheism appears to me to be re-warmed Enlightenment thinking with aggressive proselytization of the radically mixed and overextended metaphors of “the selfish gene” (read how Dawkins gushes over broad applications of evolution if you want to see modern religious fervor). Qohelet should be moaning “nothing new under the sun” about now.

    The problem with the God in the gap is it implies that ultimately there will be no place for the inscrutable or the ineffable, and if that is a part of the character of God, you are writing such a God entirely out of the picture, which I think is unreasonable.

    As far as empirical claims about the empirical claims of past theists, it’s worth remembering that people have been filling those gaps (even when the gaps did not exist for scientists) with scores of other entities, from frank magic, to demons, to disruptions of the immune system, to something about the weather, to corruption within the alimentary tract. We need not flush God just because people have tended to lump him with all this other stuff. Frankly, I think ole Dawk is following their lead, but it’s a sign of intellectual sloppiness to accept the easy folk equation of God with immune stimulants and the like. Merely because people seem naturally to believe does not answer the question of whether one of the things they have consistently believed in has an independent existence beyond their imaginings. And what a strange and ultimately unconvincing claim to attempt to defuse criticism by maintaining that the opponent is controlled (possessed?) by a selfish gene, a construct which I think science will ultimately see as quaint in another 20 years. Geneticists are already starting to move beyond Mendelianism as a broad explanation for reproduction and evolution of the species. Shall we wait for Dawkins’ next book, “The Selfish DNA methylation technique,” or “The Selfish oh-my-gosh DNA processing and epigenetic biochemistry is way more important than we ever thought and there goes my lucrative metaphor”? Give religion space to work out its ideas. We certainly give science that space.

    And thank you Ronan, for supporting WWMLI (pronounced “wimli”). I am hopeful that it will catch on.

  66. Oh, and in terms of the cultural effect of WWMLI, may I recommend watching For Your Consideration and noting the use of such stories of lineage on the part of the male publicist?

  67. MikeInWeHo says:

    Thanks, Ronan. I’ll listen to the wimli broadcast later today when I should be working. Ideal!

    re: 67 Perhaps, Rosalynde, but it certainly puts pressure on religions to either 1. change to accommodate increased knowledge or 2. engage in increasing levels of denial (compartmentalization/cognitive dissonance). For almost its entire history virtually all Christians were young-earth creationists, for example. Now virtually all have either gone down either path 1. or 2. or some combination thereof.

    The genius of Mormonism is that it is grounded on the possibility of the former. Sometimes I wonder if these bloggernacle discussions aren’t some kind of revelation-in-progress.

    I’m not some CoC cheerleader, btw, although I did watch the webcast of some of their recent General Conference and found it most interesting and edifying.

  68. Rosalynde says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Sam. I agree that organized institutional religion does far more than postulate God at the limits of human understanding (although I believe that this is still a nontrivial part of its work).

    The problem with the God in the gap is it implies that ultimately there will be no place for the inscrutable or the ineffable, and if that is a part of the character of God, you are writing such a God entirely out of the picture, which I think is unreasonable

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. If you mean that humans will always experience elements of consciousness and being-in-the-world as ineffable and inscrutable, regardless of the success of science in finding neurobiological correlates of or evolutionary rationales for these experiences—then I agree.

    Incidentally, I think the Book of Mormon is not a classic case of science-v-religion, of which Galileo is the archetypal figure. If we were to find a pot inscribed with “Nephi was here,” for example, or some other scientific confirmation of its ancient authenticity, this wouldn’t take the mystery out of the Book of Mormon—indeed, it would confirm the God-mystery of its translation by Joseph Smith. And it would do so precisely by means of a God-in-the-gaps: “How else could Joseph have obtained/translated this document? It must have been God. There’s no other explanation.” In this way, empirical knowledge could be conscripted in the service of mystery.

  69. John F. in #66 says:

    Only J. Stapley has acknowledged Kevin Barney’s statement in # 26 that there is a difference between the Lamanites being the principal ancestors of American Indians, which I don’t buy, and American Indians being descended from Lehi, which strikes me as very possible. Those are two entirely different claims.

    What do you make of this sentiment, RT? Does this view have the potential for solving the identity problem that you are concerned about?

    First of all, for at least some groups, it may not be relevant. Polynesians and Amazon basin groups may or may not have Lehite DNA under limited geography approaches. But it’s reasonable to at least worry that they might not.

    Second, one or two Lehite ancestors might possibly not make a difference one way or another. The message that the church has taught and continues to teach in Central and South America is that the Book of Mormon is the prehistory of the Americas and of indigenous members’ ancestors. This hasn’t been an account about one or two genealogical lines, but rather about much broader history and heritage.

    In the end, of course, this will be an issue that is decided by Latin American Saints if and when limited geography theories become widely known in that part of our community. Many may possibly choose to feel satisfied with the idea that they — like, perhaps, most people on the planet — might have a strand or two of Lehite DNA. If limited geographies do make a southward progression, this would be an outcome devoutly to be desired.

    I should note that limited geography theories have other as yet unresolved dilemmas. For instance, we lose the clearest meaning of Joseph Smith’s canonized 1838 account of the Moroni vision:

    [Moroni] said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang.

    Not some former inhabitants, nor the former inhabitants of a small part of this continent, or one of the many sources from whence they sprang. This vision stands in need of interpretive work under limited geography theories. The false notes associated with the limited geography approach are not yet all sorted out; the process of hermeneutic change is still rippling outward.

  70. JNS:

    Not some former inhabitants, nor the former inhabitants of a small part of this continent, or one of the many sources from whence they sprang.

    Aren’t you putting waaaay too fine a point on this quote? It seems to me that the point being made had little or nothing to do with the specifics of the ancestry of the “inhabitants” referred to, or their percentage of inclusion in a larger population. It’s just a basic way to describe, in the most general terms, the subject of the book being referred to. That’s all.

    If this is another example of the parade of horribles we can expect from widespread adoption of the LGM, I say again: bring it on.

  71. Well, as of today, I’m going with the Alien World Model (suggested above).

  72. Can’t do it Ronan. The AWM was based on an erroneous assumption, i.e. that there is no authority for the popular notion that the events of the BoM took place in the Americas, which has now been shattered by Steve (in #57) and JNS (in #72). It also destroys all plain meaning to be had from 1st Nephi 13.

    Care to pick again?

  73. At this point, MCQ, I could make a sarcy comment about America being an alien world, but I’ll refrain, though I guess I just did!

  74. You are nothing if not sarcy, Ronan.

  75. MCQ, is that the best response there is to the Moroni vision? I agree that the vision is a brief description of the contents of the Book of Mormon. That brief description directly characterizes the book as a continental history. Your response is to say that we shouldn’t take the words too seriously? I call that a horrible indeed — geographic debates leading us to simply disregard canonized revelation.

    Let me note that, if the intention had been to briefly characterize a limited-geography Book of Mormon, there are ways Moroni could have described the book with equal economy that wouldn’t have been misleading. For example:

    Moroni] said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of some former inhabitants of this continent.

  76. If that had been the intention of Moroni, or of Joseph in quoting him, then I’m sure that would be how we would be reading that quote now. As it is, neither of them were interested in putting that fine a point on it, I believe.

  77. Zelph and I have no idea what to make of many of the theories.

  78. JNS, your argument in #78 just as easily works against you. If the intention had been to briefly characterize a non-limited geography Book of Mormon, there are ways Moroni could have described the book with equal economy that wouldn’t have been misleading. For example:

    “[Moroni] said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of all former inhabitants of this continent.”

  79. KLC, that’s almost exactly what the text says.

  80. Weeell, come on, JNS. The BoM itself implies that there were other groups around besides Lehites and Jaredites. You’re making a liar out of Moroni, or at least suggesting he didn’t read his Dad’s book very carefully.

  81. MCQ, I disagree. I think that the Book of Mormon doesn’t really imply other groups. Instead, there are a handful of ambiguous passages that have clear interpretations under the theory that only Lehites and Jaredites were present — but that can also be interpreted as references to other groups under the hermeneutic that other groups are present.

    In any case, I didn’t put those words in Moroni’s mouth.

    One last point, MCQ. Is there really any doubt that Joseph Smith took the Book of Mormon — and Moroni’s vision — as discussing a hemispheric history? There shouldn’t be; he was pretty unambiguous, as have been each of our church presidents since.

  82. You put the “all” in Moroni’s mouth, which is all I was talking about.

  83. Is there really any doubt that Joseph Smith took the Book of Mormon — and Moroni’s vision — as discussing a hemispheric history?

    I think Joseph was operating under some assumptions that were not seriously questioned during his lifetime, but have been since. As for later presidents, I can’t comment because I’m not sure what “unambiguous” statements you’re referring to.

  84. MCQ, I didn’t put the “all” in Moroni’s mouth; he did. There’s no other reasonable way to read the grammatical construction in his line of dialogue. Look again at the words: “…an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang.” In this construct, “the” appears as the definite article before a plural noun — a construction that only occurs, according to the OED, when the plural noun is being used universally. The construction “the former inhabitants” doesn’t exclude any inhabitants; rather it formally includes them all. So it’s a parallel construction to “all former inhabitants.” Moroni’s dialogue claims the book as the origin story of indigenous people in the Americas.

    Regarding other statements claiming the Book of Mormon as a hemispheric history, these are legion. Some anti-Mormons keep extensive collections of these quotes to try to destroy faith. My purposes are quite different, so I’m not going to link to one of those sites. But, there have been extensive comments along these lines in church conferences over the last 170 years, at temple dedications, and in letters and other writings of church presidents. I mentioned earlier that a friend of mine has a letter over Hinckley’s signature stating that the policy of the church is and always has been to reject two-Cumorah theories — the logical implication of which is to reject limited geographies, almost all of which require two Cumorahs. Similar letters can be located at various antagonistic sites online.

    I will offer one point of interest, however. In his discussion of Book of Mormon difficulties, B.H. Roberts considered a limited geography-type solution and rejected it:

    Can we answer that the Nephites and the people of Mulek—really constituting one people—occupied a very much more restricted area of the American continents than has heretofore been supposed, and that this fact (assumed here for the argument) would leave the rest of the continents—by far the greater part of them say—to be inhabited by other races, speaking other tongues, developing other cultures, and making, though absolutely unknown to Book of Mormon people, other histories? This might account for the diversity of tongues found in the New World, and give a reason for the lack of linguistic unity among them.

    To this answer there would be the objection that if such other races or tribes existed then the Book of Mormon is silent about them. Neither the people of Mulek nor the people of Lehi or after they were combined, nor any of their descendants ever came in contact with any such people, so far as any Book of Mormon account of it is concerned. As for the Jaredites they are out of the reckoning in this matter, as we have already seen, since their language and their culture, as active factors, perished with their extinction. Any beyond them, so far as a more ancient possession of the American continents is concerned, by previous inhabitants, we are barred probably by the Book of Ether statement that the people of Jared were to go “into that quarter where there had never man been,” and nowhere is there any statement or intimation in the Book of Mormon that the people of Jared ever came in contact with any other people upon the land of America, save for the contact of the last survivor of the race with the people of Mulek, which does not affect at all the matters here under discussion.

    Then could the people of Mulek and of Lehi, being such a people as they are represented to be in the Book of Mormon—part of the time numbering millions and occupying the land at least from Yucatan to Cumorah, and this during a period of at least a thousand years—could such a people, I repeat, live and move and have their being in the land of America and not come in contact with other races and tribes of men, if such existed in the New World within Book of Mormon times? To make this seem possible the area occupied by the Nephites and Lamanites would have to be extremely limited, much more limited, I fear, than the Book of Mormon would admit of our assuming. (B.H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, p.92-93)

    This is the most explicit argument against limited-geography approaches by a church leader that I am aware of; I am aware of no comparably explicit argument in favor.

  85. RT, why are you willing to give so much weight and credence to B.H. Roberts’ interpretation and not to people who endorse a limited geography theory? Is it because, for example, you agree with B.H. Roberts that the only way to read the BoM is to understand the Jaredites as being completely extinct, their people, their language, and their entire culture? B.H. Roberts’ statement depends on this, but I have a hard time seeing it as the exclusive way to read the BoM narrative. Rather, it seems quite unrealistic to think that literally all Jaredite people, their language, and their entire culture was entirely obliterated.

  86. John F., did I give weight and credence to B.H. Roberts? Not at all. The quote was offered as a historical example, not a compelling argument. While there is a whole gallery of statements by current and past church leaders that presuppose the hemispheric theory, there’s never been an equally direct defense of the limited geography. My quote of Roberts was merely an example of the imbalance.

    Rather, it seems quite unrealistic to think that literally all Jaredite people, their language, and their entire culture was entirely obliterated.

    This may be unrealistic, but it has clearly been the majority interpretation of the Book of Mormon for most of the last 200 years.

    The statements that I think should be given weight and influence are the canonized ones. Some of those are still discordant from a limited-geography perspective; Moroni’s revelatory statement being perhaps the most pressing example.

  87. I didn’t put the “all” in Moroni’s mouth; he did.

    Just plain not true. There is no “all,” so stop pretending there is. The OED doesn’t get you an “all” when there isn’t one, and neither does the testimony of forty bishops. You are the one insisting on a strict reading of this Moroni quote. How can you simultanneously insist that we should read an “all” into it that isn’t there?

    Moroni’s revelatory statement being perhaps the most pressing example.

    You keep saying things like that. But just saying that it’s a canonized revelation doesn’t change the fact that this is really just Joseph quoting Moroni years later for a purpose that has nothing to do with whether the Lehites and Jaredites were the only people who ever came to the Americas. Moroni was not engaging in revelation to Joseph on that point and Joseph was not discussing that subject. We don’t even know if he was remembering the quote exactly.

    It seems silly to me to believe that these two migrations were the only ones. Roberts assumes this because the BoM does not specifically describe other cultures. That’s just not a good enough reason, in my opinion.

  88. MCQ, it may be silly to believe that the Book of Mormon describes the history of all pre-Colombian Americans. Joseph Smith and many millions of Mormons have done, nonetheless.

    Joseph may certainly have misunderstood or misquoted Moroni; that throws all of Joseph’s revelations into some doubt on any particular we dislike. That might be a good or a bad development, but it’s important to address, all the same.

    Regarding the quote, I can find no clear way of reading it that doesn’t involve Moroni claiming that the book is the prehistory of the indigenous Americans. The grammatical construction used there has one and only one normal interpretation; I just can’t find parallel usages that don’t have universal application. Suppose a student is assigned to read a 300-page book, only reads 8 or 10 pages, and then says, “I did the reading.” Is that student being honest, or does the “the” mean “all the reading” in such linguistic constructions? If you want to claim that the text is a mistake by Joseph Smith, and face the consequences of that for analyzing other revelations, that’s fine. But please let’s don’t claim that the words don’t mean what they always mean in similar situations.

    Emotional responses I respect; I understand that you have strong negative feelings about this discussion. I’m not your enemy here, unless you define the enemy as anyone who is uncomfortable with limited Book of Mormon geographies. But I can understand why you would see things as if I were; Mormons are often uncomfortable with intellectual pluralism.

  89. J. Nelson-Seawright: It seems to me that you want to place a lot on a little. Moroni wasn’t getting particular and discussing anthropolgy with Joseph Smith — he was introducing a subject that Joseph knew nothing about. What do you want? “Joseph, the book is about a particular group of the forefathers of the american indians have haplotype x”?

    Once again — anyone who takes the Book of Mormon seriously as an historical text is going to adopt the LGT for the simple reason that the text doesn’t make sense any other way. It really is that simple. Now if you claim that the text simply cannot make sense on either theory that is quite another claim. But you haven’t made that claim have you? If you do, then I’d like to hear about it.

  90. Blake, I don’t see it. Why would it have been too technical and bizarre for Moroni to say “some of the former inhabitants of this continent”? Or “one tribe on this continent”? The text in question here may not be extensive — but it is quite pointed. As far as I can see, Moroni is lying or Joseph Smith is mistaken about the literal, verbal content of his revelation if the Book of Mormon involves a limited geography.

    There’s a terrible presentist bias in your statement. Most Mormons since the publication of the book seem to have taken it seriously as a hemispheric history. If you think it doesn’t make sense that way, you’ve thrown overboard most of our tradition. Adopting the limited geography approach seems to be an approach designed to deal with some intellectual disappointments regarding the Book of Mormon — and we’re now so dominated by an idolatry of the intellectual that we seem to be blinded to the other costs of this approach.

  91. JNS:

    I think you may be misinterpreting me. I’m not thinking you are my enemy and I’m not emotionally or intellectually invested in the LGM. I just don’t like your arguments to the contrary. I think you’re wrong that Moroni or Joseph had anything in mind about the hemispheric theory in that quote.

    Joseph may certainly have misunderstood or misquoted Moroni; that throws all of Joseph’s revelations into some doubt on any particular we dislike.

    Maybe. But we’re talking only about one particular vision here, in which you must admit you are hanging an awful lot on a very thin hook. All I am suggesting is that in this particular instance, where Joseph is writing years later, focusing on a different purpose unrelated to your point, it is unwarranted to think he is remembering with exact precision the words on which you are placing so much meaning. Most of Joseph’s revelations, and most other revelations in general, are recorded much nearer the time they are received, so this argument would not apply to them.

    I also think you underestimate the saints and overestimate the costs nvolved in adopting the LGM. Most people are not that interested in the finer points of this debate, nor should they be. The question most people are concerned about is whether the book is of God. Once that question is answered by the spirit, this debate concerns details that have only academic relevance.

  92. JNS:

    Go back and read Sam’s comment #7. He took the words right out of my mouth, and I know many who feel the same way. Holding on too tightly to a hemispheric model of the BoM just because it’s a tradition and past leaders have taught it that way is not necessary. It’s not necessary to the truth of the book, it’s not necessary to a testimony of the gospel and it’s not supported by the text itself. Let’s chuck it.

  93. I don’t at all agree that the Moroni vision is a thin hook. It’s the only canonized explanation of what the Book of Mormon is.

    Most of Joseph’s revelations, and most other revelations in general, are recorded much nearer the time they are received, so this argument would not apply to them. Worth debating. Are you ready to throw the first vision overboard, as well as the revelation on eternal marriage?

    I think — and most readers of the book have always agreed — that the text of the Book of Mormon is at least as compatible with a hemispheric interpretation as with a limited one.

  94. J. Nelson-Seawright: The LGT is idolatry? Isn’t that a bit of an overreaction? I’m tempted to just call your response non-sense that it is. Your historical tradition argument would work equally well for not giving blacks the priesthood or sticking with slavery because some members held such beliefs dear.

    Moreover, if a view is simply false, it ought to be rejected in favor of one that is possibly true. You can call that anything you want, including idolatry of the itellectual — I just see it as a good faith adjusstment to fit the text. Bot Kevin Barney and I came to the LGT simply from reading the text carefully. The continental model is non-sense because no serious reader could make sense of the distances and very consistent geography reported in the book on such a model. The text isn’t compatible with such a model. It’s theological expectations may be. Moreover, I join MCQ in suggesting that you are reading a lot more into Moroni’s remark than is there.

  95. Blake, I expect better of you. I didn’t call the geography theory idolatry; I called privileging intellectual criteria over revelation and community idolatry.

  96. Are you ready to throw the first vision overboard, as well as the revelation on eternal marriage?

    You know the answers, JNS, no and no. And thanks again for this lengthy discussion.

  97. JNS,

    “The construction “the former inhabitants” doesn’t exclude any inhabitants; rather it formally includes them all. So it’s a parallel construction to “all former inhabitants.” Moroni’s dialogue claims the book as the origin story of indigenous people in the Americas.”

    No no no, you are cheating. If “all” means “all” then, according to your OED, Moroni is saying it is a record of _all_ the former inhabitants of this continent. So it is a history of the Puritans, the Spaniards, the Portuguese, any Vikings who happened by and an account of every last group to hit the shore up to 1828. It is a record of all the indigenous people including those who lived after Moroni and while the record was buried.

    Except, of course, that that is surely not what Moroni was saying. It simply would make no sense for him to claim it to be a record of those who lived in 1000 AD, because it isn’t. We actually have a much better, canonized, first hand account of what the book is (despite your claim to the contrary. Check out the title page. This tells very clearly what the book is- a record of the Nephites and a little bit about the Lamanites with a touch of Jaredite thrown in– all abridged (meaning, you know, incomplete and edited, the reader’s digest version).

    The book goes to lengths to point out that it contains not a 100th part of all that happened among the Nephites, let alone the Lamanites. So yes, it is _an_ account of the former inhabitants. But that _an_, and I imagine your OED will back me up, is non-exclusive. Meaning that there can be other, different accounts.

  98. hmmm. *an* account of *the* former inhabitants. so the nephites and lamanites are the only indigenous peoples, but they can have multiple stories. sounds like frank and jns are on the same team.

  99. George– nope. Because as I pointed out, “the” former inhabitants cannot possibly mean _all_ former inhabitants.

  100. This thread seems to not be making much progress. I wonder if we can agree that JNS’ reading is not one he is plucking out of thin air.

  101. Ronan, I think that Frank’s comment # 100 does indeed bring this discussion forward. JNS, Frank nails the problem with the argument you are trying to make on the head.

  102. I think that Frank’s comment is interesting and useful but not really problematic. The issue involves defining “former” from the Moroni quote. That word allows a time line to be drawn when the history ends. Some groups are early enough to be “former” and others aren’t. But the quote isn’t as forgiving in terms of allowing certain groups during the “former” period but not others; that’s where the universal construction involving “the former inhabitants” has some bite.

  103. Ugly Mahana says:


    Are you contending that the hemispheric model and the limited geography model are both legitimate readings of the Book of Mormon, or that the hemispheric model is superior to the limited geography model?

  104. Ugly Mahana says:

    I suppose the same question could be asked of Frank and john f. as well.

  105. JNS, you are trying to force Moroni to be saying that the BoM presents a hemispheric narrative because of the phrase “the” former inhabitants. If you are going to take that approach, then Frank’s observation is entirely relevant and has bite. “Former” is not a way out of this problem, as your OED will show you.

  106. re # 106:

    I would say that in my opinion, a limited geography theory makes the most sense given the BoM narrative and also does not lessen the claim that the Lehites are ancestors of the indigenous peoples living in the Americas.

  107. JNS,

    Maybe. Or maybe you are just trying to make “the” do more work than it is up for. It is, in the end, a rather slim reed upon which to hang a major objection. Especially given that we know Joseph made minor grammatical errors all the time in documents much more directly revelatory than this account.

    One of the more tragic examples being Simonds Ryder who used the misspelling of his name in a revelation as one of his reasons for claiming Joseph was not a prophet, eventually leading to the Kirtland tar and feathering.

  108. Mahana,

    After reading Sorenson’s book, I am somewhat inclined towards the limited geography theory. He actually lays out a case for it pretty nicely– especially compared to the slapdash version of it you get hanging out on websites. Maybe if I read some comparably lengthy document on the hemispheric view, I’d find that one equally compelling. I am not wed to either view.

    I don’t require the Book of Mormon to be error-less, But I do believe the it is a record of events that actually occurred.

  109. JNS, I don’t how a “the” found in a second hand account of an event written some twelve years after the event (at a time when the author most likely believed in a hemispheric model) can be taken as the crux of an argument for Moroni engaging in a pious fraud. I agree with those who find this flimsy evidence.

    And yes, I’ll engage in lengthy debates regarding grammatical minutiae in Biblical Hebrew, thank you for asking.

  110. JNS, I took a weekend sabbatical from the discussion. I don’t have anything to add that hasn’t been said by others since my comment. But I would say that you are too easily dismissing everyone who doesn’t absolutely agree with you and your prooftexting of Moroni’s words.

    A rational interpretation of Moroni could be what you believe it to be: a linguistally rigorous, logically inclusive statement about all indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. But a rational, and perhaps more realistic interpretation of Moroni could also be what you refuse to believe it to be, a colloquial statement to a young man only about the specific subjects of the record he revealing to him.

    I would be more comfortable with your arguments if you at least admitted that Moroni’s words can be ambiguous, and thus open to alternate interpretations, instead of iron clad and agreeing only with your own erudite conclusions.

  111. HP/JDC, why would Moroni be engaged in pious fraud? I think that the hemispheric interpretation relies on the idea that Moroni was telling the truth, right? And the account was first-hand, although retrospective, wasn’t it? Joseph was there.

    One question worth asking is why Joseph believed the hemispheric model? Church leaders have repeated suggested over the intervening period that this was official, and Joseph seems to have thought it was revelatory. His interpretation as a hemispheric — or at least New England-based rather than Mesoamerican — history also seems to have been immediate; Lucy’s history gives us Joseph recounting details of the Nephite daily life in the Palmyra area immediately after the Moroni visions, suggesting either that Joseph was indeed engaged in some pious fraud at one level or another or that Joseph felt he received a great deal of historical information in those visions. Other visionary events in the historical record (the many other records seen inside the Palmyra Cumorah, the Zelph episode, etc.) support the interpretation that Joseph felt there was visionary evidence either for a hemispheric version of the Book of Mormon or at least for a broad North American — not Mesoamerican — geography.

    I have agreed, and continue to agree, that we can see the text as a mistake by Joseph Smith. However, I think that we would also be required, under this interpretation, to be equally skeptical about the accuracy of other late-reported revelations, including the canonized first vision (reported in the same text as the Moroni vision) and the plural/eternal marriage revelation (which Joseph said was written down something like a decade after it was received). My only argument here is that the intended meaning of this canonized text is that the Book of Mormon provides an origin story for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. We can reject the text as erroneous, and this has consequences — possibly good, possibly bad — for how we read other canonized texts. Or there are other possibilities. Obviously this quote alone isn’t decisive. I see it as part of a pattern of claimed revelatory evidence on the part of Joseph Smith that fits poorly with Mesoamerican limited geographies. But it’s only one piece of evidence; all I’m asking here is that people acknowledge that there are scraps of authoritative text that fit awkwardly with the limited geography approach.

    My broader project is to encourage us to think through the consequences of the current cultural redirection to a limited geography approach. Unlike many other equally substantial doctrinal reorientations, this is driven by intellectual concerns rather than revelation. (The only comparable change I can immediately think of would be the early-20th-century definition of Jesus the Son as the Old Testament Jehovah, a change also driven by intellectual concerns rather than published revelation.) For that reason, I think the move requires special scrutiny. Are there victims of this change? To the extent that there are, they seem to be people whose voice in the church is already minimized — i.e., rank-and-file non-readers of Mormon Studies, and particularly non-white members. This setup, in which an educated elite is redirecting the church without input from the people who have the most to lose, once again seems to deserve special scrutiny.

  112. In reading the BoM, the LGT seemed intuitive to me even before the DNA issues. That said, I also think:

    1. Most, if not all, of the church leadership since JSJ has believed the hemispheric model or a modified version of the hemispheric model.
    2. Even if the BoM itself doesn’t claim the hemispheric model, historical record and revelations certainly imply the indigenous people of this continent are decedents of Lehi, Ishmael, et al.
    3. Most members think the hemispheric model is the position of the church. I was certainly taught it in primary. I wasn’t exposed to other ideas until I started questioning these kinds of things as a deacon.
    4. Many missionaries and members use the hemispheric model when talking to indigenous people of the Americas and Pacific Islands in an attempt to make the BoM more personal to them.

  113. JNS, it is second hand because it is hearsay. Even though Joseph Smith was present, he was operating on his recollection of what another person said. Furthermore, the passage in question is explicitly a summary of what the other person said, not a verbatim transcript.

    Also, using questioning the accuracy of a “the” to lead to questioning the reality of the events described in that canonized document is too much of a slippery slope argument for me to swallow.

  114. KyleM, the DNA stuff is badly exaggerated these days. It is simply another point of evidence in support of a perspective that has been hegemonic in the study of American antiquities for a very long time. I think the turn to limited geographies has required, as a social prerequisite, the existence of that hegemony — not concerns about DNA.

    HP, wow! No way am I questioning the reality of the vision in this line of discussion. I think the only way you can get there is by starting with the assumption that the hemispheric model is unacceptable. I’m not making that assumption.

    On the “second-hand” point, I’ve seen historians distinguish between first-hand reports of people present at an event and second-hand reports of people who heard from people present. So there may just be multiple usages here. The hearsay point is of course correct from a legal perspective; historians, by contrast, use hearsay evidence all the time.

  115. I agree that DNA simply confirmed the prevailing thought of the origin of precolumbian populations. I was trying to be brief as that wasn’t the focus of my comment.

  116. JNS,

    I remember limited geography coming up before on your blog and us having a discussion about the DNA evidence. Do you remember that post? I can’t find it and I’m hoping you can point it out.

    “historians, by contrast, use hearsay evidence all the time.”

    There is a difference between _using_ hearsay evidence and _abusing_ hearsay evidence over correct usage of definite articles. It just isn’t that precise when dealing with tertiary things (like this surely is, compared to the more relevant concerns of the testimonial).

  117. JNS, the point I am arguing against that you have made is that Moroni’s purported use of the word “the” requires the hemispheric model. Even if he did use the word “the”, if we allow for the argument that you want, then we cannot exclude the conclusions that Frank brings that argument to regarding the former inhabitants, meaning that present day indigenous Americans need to exhibit DNA of English, Spaniards, and Vikings.

    You are using this issue about “the” in support of an argument that doesn’t follow anyway; that is, that modern-day Central and South Americans will have to give up their understanding that they are descended from Lehi, Ishmael, and Mulek. In other words, accepting a limited geography theory — even if it is on an intellectual basis as you have repeated pointed out — does not require that an educated “elite” is denying the tribe of Manasseh its heritage. I guess that I am wondering why you are holding firm on the argument that Central and South American Lehite heritage understanding depends on the hemispheric model.

    As for earlier Church leaders including Joseph Smith believing in a hemispheric model, unless it is based on revelation about that point, then it is not binding. I would bet that Joseph Smith and other Church leaders — including many Church leaders today — thought and think that Job actually existed or have distorted views of Biblical geographies, even though sources about those issues are at anyone’s fingertips today and weren’t entirely out of reach in Joseph Smith’s day as well.

  118. John, Mormon lineage theory has only ever had a single “one-ancestor” rule, and that was the racial priesthood restriction policy, which had no revelatory basis. Other discussions of lineage in Mormonism have always assigned each individual to one (somehow predominant) line of descent. So the fact that — according to some mathematical models — everybody on Earth today is a descendent of Lehi doesn’t answer questions of lineage in the Mormon sense. But the question also involves heritage. One single ancestor 50 generations ago gives a much more limited sense of connection than the most-ancestors model that our members have been taught as a central missionary message of the church in Latin America and the Pacific.

    The point with the Moroni vision — and the Hill Cumorah visions and the Zelph vision and the Lucy Mack Smith account — is that they supply evidence that Joseph Smith thought there was a revelatory basis for his interpretation of the Book of Mormon as a hemispheric history. Joseph may have been foolish in thinking this, and such foolishness would certainly account for all of the evidence. My argument is simply that there is some reason to think he thought his argument was based in revelation.

    Please note that I’m not at all arguing about DNA.

  119. JNS,

    The Zelph account has been brought under scrutiny, as noted here.

    The lack of good contemporary accounts makes determining what Joseph Smith said, and what has been handed down, hard to determine. I’m not sure that I would use it as an example.

  120. Kevinf, if a partially questionable case fits a pattern of other data, then both the case and the pattern are thereby bolstered. The collection of other sources pointing in the same direction tend to verify the Zelph account, which reciprocally verifies the other sources.

  121. JNS, Do you have a link to the post I mentioned above?

  122. Frank, I haven’t had time to look. I will try to find it, though. Apologies if it seems that I’ve been ignoring you. Not so; I’ve been teaching.

  123. JNS,

    I’ve read another version of Godfrey’s research into the Zelph story, and combined with this one, it’s obvious that Joseph Smith said something about Zelph after a skeleton was unearthed on a mound during the Zion’s Camp march. Beyond that, it’s sketchy, and the conclusions that can be drawn start to diverge wildly. I’m not taking sides in the LGT discussion, it’s just that I knew a little about Zelph, and thought that particular argument weak. I was just speaking directly to the Zelph accounts, not a broader view of Book of Mormon geography.

  124. Frank, I think this is the discussion you referred to.

    Kevinf, I agree that there are differences in the details of historical accounts of the Zelph episode. However, common threads run through accounts that diverge in other ways: Joseph claimed revelatory insight that Zelph was connected with the Book of Mormon. Given that commonality, the other divergences don’t undermine the episode as evidence that Joseph felt divine confirmation for a hemispheric geography — because even people who remember the event differently share that general sense.

  125. Thanks for taking the time to find that. It’s not the one I was thinking of so maybe it was a discussion on another web site.


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