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).