Book of Mormon geography, archives edition

I read Ardis’ recent report on her Gospel Doctrine introducing the Book of Mormon (you should too). Her section documenting the shifting language about the ancestry of Native Americans reminded me of a couple of relevant documents. I don’t know how many Mormons believe that Lehites are the primary ancestors of Native Americans; I would suspect that most of the readers here don’t. But I’ve heard people in my ward talk about the “heartland” theory, and I’ve spoken to more than one person who found the admissions in the Book of Mormon DNA essay released by the church to be incongruous with the worldviews expounded in their childhoods. I think it is worth pointing out that church leaders haven’t really held unanimous and monolithic views, though some have been very influential.

Josiah Hickman was a prominent Utah educator in the early twentieth century, and wrote extensively on the Book of Mormon. In a scrapbook held by the Hickman family is a letter written by Joseph Fielding Smith in response to the questions of whether “our leaders are losing faith in the belief that the Nephites landed some where on the west coast of South America.”

Smith was then an apostle and church historian. He noted that “I think some of them have never had faith in that doctrine. Other have paid no attention to it and are willing to be led into some other belief.” Smith, however, was resolute that Lehi landed on the Coast of Chile, and refers to writings by Frederick G. Williams to support that belief.

Anthony Ivins of the First Presidency was one of those that held alternate beliefs. Smith wrote that Ivins “once said in my hearing that he did not believe that the Nephites were ever in South America.” Smith went on to say that “Brother Ivins is fond of saying that all Israel occupied the little land of Palestine, and therefore the Nephites and Lamanites must have occupied a small land, comparatively.” Smith did not concur with this assessment and noted that there were indigenous peoples all over the entire hemisphere when Europeans arrived.

I think that it is pretty safe to say that JFSII won out. I recently stumbled across a circular letter sent out to local leaders in 1960 warning them about a map circulated by a “California organization.” “We wish to refer bishops to the printed matter at the bottom of the map, which contains an inference that there are two, rather than one, Hills Cumorah-one in Mexico as well as the one in New York. The Church has never accepted this contention. Bishops are requested to make cognizant of this discrepancy those in their wards who might be sending for these maps or using them for instructional purposes. This concept of two Cumorahs should not be taught as official Church doctrine.” I don’t think there is currently church doctrine on Book of Mormon geography, but I suspect that multiple Cumorahs is the dominant view of both church members and leaders alike (despite the heartlanders).


  1. Authorities such as Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and Brigham Young were interested in this geography with one of the places rumored to be up the Missouri

  2. Many of the competing Book of Mormon geography theories have been mapped out here:

  3. Clark Goble says:

    The evidence from the text itself for a small geographical area was compelling enough that over time it won out.

  4. Re: “primary ancestors.” The answer depends on how we define our ancestors. If one’s ancestry is based on biological inheritance, then yes, the evidence does not support labeling the Lehites as the primary ancestors of Native Americans. (For the record, this is what I believe Elder McConkie had in mind when he wrote the BOM introduction, so it was good to correct that mistake)

    But what if we view ancestry as more a function of the historical examples and traditions that we choose to follow? This view allows for Abraham to be called a “primary ancestor” even if he’s just one of 10,000 men on the same line of our pedigree chart. It’s not Abraham’s DNA that matters to us, but his story, example, covenants, and message that continue to guide our lives in a meaningful way. The same principle allows us to view Christ as our “Father” even though we do not take any biological inheritance from him. And it allows for us LDS – all of us, not just Native Americans – to view the Lehites as some of our primary ancestors.

  5. Lew Scannon says:

    So far, I haven’t seen a Book of Mormon geography theory that is consistent with what the book actually says or with what Joseph’s revelations say. All of the theories have to stretch things out of proportion to get any sort of fit. So . . . where does that leave us?

  6. It would be fascinating to know what the average Mormon today thinks about the origins of Native Americans. Are there demographic variations in these beliefs? One would sort of expect education to impact belief in such origins, but I’m not certain of that. How does a limited role for the Lehites play in Latin America and the Pacific Islands?

  7. I’m guessing most American Mormons today continue to believe that the Lamanites are the primary ancestors of the Native Americans. That was taught for a long time, and it continues to be taught (albeit it now more at the local level and unofficially). Relatively few people know that McConkie’s Introduction has been changed, and even fewer have read the church’s DNA essay.

  8. J., that JFSII letter awesome. I love his Ivins dish, and his typical down the nose look. Cool find.

  9. The big mistake was teaching that there were no people in the Americas before the Lehites except one or two remaining Jaredites. A close reading of the Book of Mormon text does not require it. Yet Church leaders chose to teach it anyway. Many members might have been able to see what the text actually allows but instead deferred to Church leaders based on ingrained cultural tendencies to think that it is impossible for a Church leader to make a mistake or misunderstand doctrine or scripture or anything else.

    Understanding that the Americas were abundantly peopled at the time of all of the various migrations discussed in the Book of Mormon changes a lot and helps us receive the truths in the text much more clearly. Some of the migrants integrated quickly into the local populations, adopting their incorrect religious practices as well. The Nephites viewed this as corrupt when the Lamanites did this. In terms of population demographics, we are not required to think that all Native Americans are genetically descendants of Lehites if we understand that many people of all kinds of origins already lived in the Western Hemisphere for several thousand years, maybe more, and then a handful of migrating Hebrews (the Lehites — how many were there on that ship that Nephi built? 100? less? more?) integrated in to them over a period of a thousand years beginning a mere 2,600 years ago, plus or minus a couple of hundred years.

    Who knows what genetic markers Jaredites had? Central Asian? The Jaredite civilization collapsed and all Jaredites melted into surrounding populations of native peoples. Then the Lehites arrived to a hemisphere teeming with peoples and civilizations.

    It is interesting that JFSII had no understanding whatsoever of genetics or population demographics or much else science related — that doesn’t diminish his role in the office of Apostle or President of the Church as to matters pertaining to that office (such as testifying of Jesus Christ and repentance), but as to statements about Book of Mormon geography or population genetics/demographics, I would think that any statement by him about those topics would need to be weighed and measured against other information available through research based on the scientific method.

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Tim, I’m not sure that’s true. Although I bet there are big regional and educational differences. i.e. I bet former BYU grads are more familiar with the limited geography model. My guess however is that even with limited exposure in Sunday School that most members are pretty ignorant of their scriptures.

  11. John F. –

    I love your comment, but take exception to your statement that ignorance does “not diminish his role in the office of Apostle or President of the Church as to matters pertaining to that office.” Quite the contrary. Such ignorance is not simply an embarassment; it undermines confidence in said leaders, and drives away people from the Church who know better. Ignorance–especially that caked with arrogance and pomposity–is inexcusable.

  12. @FW “Inexcusable”? I’ve excused an awful lot of pretty horrible things in my life. What we’re talking about here doesn’t even rank in the top 20 of things I’ve decided to forgive people for.

  13. J. Stapley says:

    It is hard for me to get exercised about BoM geography. Beyond the idea of a limited geography, I don’t think much about it at all really. For me, personally, it doesn’t seem like a very productive area of research. Others’ mileage obviously varies.

    The idea that church leaders have misread scripture is sort of par for the course, if you spend any time in the documentary record at all. Sometimes that misreading is creative and productive, other times (like hemispheric readings of the BoM) not so much.

    I thought the documents in this post were interesting because it shows a fascinating transition among church leaders during the 20th century.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    I was first introduced to these ideas as a missionary in Colorado in late 1977. During a priesthood lesson, a brother in the ward who worked for CES and was knowledgeable made an impassioned pleas for members to stop assuming that there was no one else in the land when Lehi and company arrived, as that was simply not true. That lesson made quite an impression on me, and prepared me to learn more about this subject when I returned to BYU. (John Sorenson was actually the high council representative to my married student ward (late 1980 to spring 1982).

  15. J. Stapley says:

    Hey, score one for CES.

  16. John Sorenson’s experience with Correlation re: geography is relevant here.

    I think the problem with DNA is that few people understand how it works and how complicated it is. (I was a premed student.) I may well be the biological descendant of someone 2000 years ago and have absolutely no DNA markers or residual genetic inheritance from them.

  17. That is a really interesting article, Ben.

  18. Clark Goble says:

    Kevin I find it interesting seeing how CES responded to apologetics. CES often was dominated with what for lack of a better term one might call the JFS/BRM view of the church. In some ways apologetics and FARMS in particular undermined a lot of those positions. They tended to endorse views much more accepting a scientific stance as a starting point. (Evolution interestingly was a bit of the exception and somewhat controversial with some unfortunate ID oriented articles popping up in FARMS journals at times) Back when I paid attention to such things in the 90’s it was interesting seeing how these two types of conservative theology interacted.

  19. I was hoping those well versed in linguistics and history could point me in the right direction as I’m quite unfamiliar with this piece of the puzzle:

    “One of the more curious items found in the Deseret alphabet is an English-Hopi dictionary.”

    “Brigham Young became interested in the supposed Hopi-Welsh connection: in 1858 Young sent a Welshman with Jacob Hamblin to the Hopi mesas to check for Welsh-speakers there. None were found, but in 1863 Hamblin brought three Hopi men to Salt Lake City, where they were “besieged by Welshmen wanting them to utter Celtic words,” to no avail.[25] Llewellyn Harris, a Welsh-American Mormon missionary who visited the Zuni in 1878, wrote that they had many Welsh words in their language, and that they claimed their descent from the “Cambaraga”—white men who had come by sea 300 years before the Spanish. However, Harris’ claims have never been independently verified.”

  20. sounds like fables to me

  21. Jeff: The two things you note are unrelated. The first is the subject of a book that Ken Beesley and I wrote (published last year by U of U Press). I wrote a blog post about one of the niftiest linguistic finds in the Vocabulary:

    The second is, as john f. says, fables. There is no proven relationship between Welsh and any Native American language. There are certainly chance resemblances between Welsh and any other language you care to name, but they are just that: chance resemblances. They do not demonstrate any historical relationship.

  22. One possibility is that most Native Americans are descended from BoM peoples. However, those ancestors are not Lehites, they are Jaredites. Long ago Hugh Nibley pointed out that (1) the Book of Ether is a lineage history of only one of the 24 Jaredite ancestral groups and thus the destruction it describes only affected that one lineage groups, (2) the ‘destruction’ of that Jaredite civilization does not mean that all of its people were annihilated (the world is full of people descended from destroyed civilizations) and (3) extensive Jaredite influence can be seen in the Nephite history which could only have come from Nephite absorption of Jaredite peoples. The argument that most Native Americans are Jaredites also dovetails interestingly with current scientific views that the founding population of Native Americans from Asia was fairly small and came by sea rather than by land.

  23. J. Stapley says:

    JWL, the problem with that is the 10,000 or so year discrepancy.

  24. Fables? For a long time this was a fable as well:

    Welsh Indians seemed to have captured the attention of many different people, and for good reason. Thomas Jefferson would worry about such a thing as it could threaten the entire sovereignty of the United States.

  25. Dirk, thank you for the book recommendation and I’ll track it down as soon as I can. I suspect that translating the Book of Mormon into Hopi was also an attempt to see if the Hopis recognized any of their history as described in the Book of Mormon.

  26. J. Stapley –

    You’re right about the discrepancy. The scientists can’t possibly be right because the world was only created in 4004 BC!

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