Book of Mormon Geography

Recently the good folks at lds.org have been updating the “Gospel Topics” section, as well as rolling out a slew of “Church History Topics” in conjunction with Saints. The latter has some really remarkable content (see, for example, the entry on “Masonry“). Today, however, I wanted to share some historical bits relating to the new gospel topics entry on “Book of Mormon Geography” that people have been chatting about on the internets.

First, I’ll confess to not really caring about Book of Mormon Geography. I like digging into topics where I have feel like I have data to work with. Church history provides that in abundance. The peculiarities and miraculous production of the Book of Mormon coupled with the internal production claims of the volume leave me religiously inspired, but analytically flummoxed. That said, I am a massive proponent of taking scripture seriously and limiting facile and/or absurd readings. To that point debates over Book of Mormon geography are interesting to me as a believer (wanting to limit goofiness), and as a historian of the church.

Further, I’d like to share a letter Joseph Fielding Smith wrote to a prominent Utah educator in 1933 on the topic. As per my aforementioned inclination, and informed by the scientific and religious developments of the last 100 years, I’m inclined to give significant props to First Presidency member Anthony Ivins.

Dear Brother Hickman:

I just received your letter of the 24th in which you ask if “our leaders are losing faith in the belief that the Nephites landed some where on the west coast of South America?”

I think some of them have never had faith in that doctrine. Others have paid no attention to it and are willing to be led into some other belief. My own personal belief is that Lehi did land some where on the coast of Chili, 30 degrees south latitude. We have in this office a paper in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams which says so. I do not know how, nor why, he wrote it if he did not get the information from Joseph Smith. Franklin D. Richards believed it.

President Anthony W. Ivins once said in my hearing that he did not believe that the Nephites were over in South America. I asked him from whence, then, comes the ancient ruins of once magnificent cities in Peru? I got no satisfactory answer. I have not heard others of the brethren express any belief whatever. I think most of them have paid little if any attention to this question.

One of the arguments advanced is that the topography of South America precludes the possibility of Nephite occupancy according to the history in the Book of Mormon. In this matter I think we forget that there were great changes in the land at the time of the cricifiction [sic.], according to the Book of Mormon. Mountains were thrown up and the whole face of the land was changed both north and south. This may not be in accord with modern geology, but it is true nevertheless. I have always considered the narrow neck of land to be the istmus of Panama. Some of those who believe that the Nephites occupied Central America believe that the narrow neck was between Guatemala and Honduras, or at the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Either view requires a wider stretch of imagination than the istmus is itself at Panama.

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. Yet we seeem [sic] to forget that the Indians were found all over the hemisphere when Europeans came to this land, with wonderful civilizations in Peru and Mexico.

[Joseph Fielding Smith, Letter to Josiah E. Hickman, July 27, 1933, original typescript in possession of the Hickman Family]

[update: be sure to check out Ardis’ post that quotes GQC’s (of the FP) statement on BoM geography. Fascinating!]

Comments

  1. Thanks, J. It’s really interesting (and valuable, in certain conversations) to have Joseph Fielding Smith using “My own personal belief.” Along with the whole letter reflecting differences of opinion, including “little if any attention to this question” which is where I sit.

  2. I’ve been totting up a list of the sorts of notes I would like in a study edition of the Book of Mormon that is more like most study Bibles, stuffed with notes and mini-essays, than Grant Hardy’s new edition with its laser focus on the text itself. You’ve hit on one of the types of notes on my list: The origin for some of the old-time beliefs about the Book of Mormon that we’ve dropped because they have sketchy sources. I am leery about perpetuating those claims, but it would be valuable to be able to point to a note in a study edition that explained them, whenever somebody is poking around in, say, the old Compendium and discovers what they think is forgotten truth. This belief about the site of Lehi’s landing was current as recently as when Arnold Friberg painting his illustration of Lehi’s ship approaching the New World: The birds in that picture were deliberately chosen because they live at that traditional latitude.

    It’s also really wonderful to see the much-misunderstood Joseph Fielding Smith analyzing the problem of geography. Internet Mormonism tends to think of him as pulling nonsense out of thin air, but he did not. He may have arrived at incorrect conclusions, but his pronouncements always seem to be based on real attempts at analysis.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    I agree, Christian, that in many ways, as Ardis also indicates, this is a very refreshing window in several aspects of twentieth-century Mormonism.

    Ardis, I’d buy that volume in a heartbeat. As much as JFSII and I probably wouldn’t have gotten along, I have a much greater appreciation for what he was doing and who he was after seeing documents such as these.

  4. One cool letter J. Thanks!

  5. I don’t know much about President Anthony Ivins, but from this letter it appears that he must have been an extremely patient man. (Henry Eyring Sr. had conflicts with Joseph Fielding Smith and was understandably not entirely patient.)

  6. Thanks, J. Apart from the main thrust of the letter and the reason for posting it here, my attention was caught by the use of the word “doctrine” in ”I think some of [our leaders] have never had faith in [the] doctrine” that the.”Nephites landed some where on the west coast of South America…” This use of “doctrine” by JFSII seems an example, among others including ordinary English and 3 Nephi 11, of why I am regularly confused by statements, often repeated in my little corner of Mormondom, like “teach the doctrine”, “the doctrine never changes”, and “maintain the purity of the doctrine.” Interestingly (to me anyway), “doctrine” was JFSII’s word choice; he did not adopt it from Brother Hickman.

    Ardis, I would love to have such a study edition of the BoM! But I don’t have much hope of seeing it in this life. And I haven’t even caught up with the study helps that are already out there.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Just a quick note that I have updated the post with a link to Ardis’ excellent post on GQC’s BoM geography statement.

    JR, yeah, that is in part why I don’t use the word “doctrine” in my work. I typically talk about beliefs, teachings, and church law.

  8. Ardis, J. Stapley: good news for both of you. Grant Hardy gave a lecture at BYU this past Friday, and I asked him afterward what his next project was. His answer? A Book of Mormon “Study Bible,” with hundreds of footnotes and essays. He said he’s in talks with a press (like Yale or Oxford), though I can’t recall which it was.

    J. Stapley, thanks for this. I really love seeing where the diversity of opinion in leaders lies, and it’s especially neat (as previously noted) that JFS would acknowledge it. And Ardis, appreciate your comment about JFS’ analysis. I tend to judge him harshly sometimes, but I think you’re right. He does reach his conclusions through effort and evidence, even if I disagree with some of it.

  9. Also, J. Stapley, do you have a list of which Gospel Topics essays were added? And are there others besides Masonry that struck you?

  10. Excellent stuff, and a second to Ardis’ comments.

  11. J. Stapley says:

    Bryan, I don’t have a list. There is a lot of great content in the history essays. Check out, for example, the restoration of the Melch priesthood, and the one on healing.

  12. J your link to Ardis’ post on Keepa needs to be fixed. It concatenated BCC and Keepa’s URLs.

  13. Word of the day: “concatenated.” Thanks, Alain.

    And thanks, J. and Ardis, for the historical context. Anthony Ivins is one of my favorites along with his aunt Rachel Ivins Grant.

  14. Rachel Grant was awesome. Also, maybe this is a bit morbid, but Joseph F. Smith gave a really important talk at her funeral. J. I didn’t see a restoration of Melchizedek Priesthood essay? Also there’s some great stuff on Joseph F. Smith’s vision. When Steve Taysom’s bio hits, it will add some very interesting bits to the story of the vision.

  15. J. Stapley says:

    Sorry about the link issues. They are fixed now. And wvs, that Melch Priest essay is available here:

    https://www.lds.org/study/history/topics/restoration-of-the-melchizedek-priesthood?lang=eng

    And agreed, Amy. Rachel was awesome. I believe it was the 13 Ward. Those RS minutes are gold.

  16. Thanks for sharing, J. Joseph Fielding Smith was such an interesting person. He used the tools, etc., of intellectualism to advocate what many see today as some anti-intellectual positions.

  17. Let’s face it. If you read the Book of Mormon straight (without crazy interpretations), there really isn’t a spot in the Americas that satisfies even the most basic geographical requirements. This is why there are so many theories and why all of the proponents of these theories have to concoct convoluted explanations to get around what the text actually says.

  18. I am always interested in what the Book of Mormon doesn’t say, and the lack of verifiable geographic information leads to some interesting thoughts. One reason we may not have more about where the Nephites landed is that Nephi’s account is taken from the “small plates” where it is specifically stated that much of the detail about the secular history is skipped, as Nephi sees it as redundant, with that information included in the large plates. As Nephi notes in 2 Nephi 19,

    “… the record of my father, and the genealogy of his fathers, and the more part of all our proceedings in the wilderness are engraven upon those first plates of which I have spoken; wherefore, the things which transpired before I made these plates are, of a truth, more particularly made mention upon the first plates…the more part of all our proceedings in the wilderness are engraven upon those first plates of which I have spoken…Nevertheless, I do not write anything upon [the small] plates save it be that I think it be sacred.”

    I think there were potentially a lot of things on the large plates that explain some of the unknowns about the Book of Mormon and Nephi’s account, but I don’t lose much sleep over it.

  19. Good thing he didn’t feel as strongly about Book of Mormon geography (in print) as he did about evolution.

  20. Interesting letter, but it doesn’t really build confidence in the ability of senior leaders to engage with geography and historicity questions or with the question of what evidence would be relevant to the geography and historicity question. They don’t seem to recognize that geography and historicity are linked questions and are a primary question about the book (we urge investigators to grapple with it, after all). And they don’t quite acknowledge that real-world evidence is relevant to that primary question, both internal and external evidence — the new mini-essay explicitly cites favorable internal evidence, which undercuts the idea that evidence doesn’t matter, just prayer.

    An 1890 letter, a 1933 letter, a quote from a FP Counselor in 1929 — it sure seems like the authorities that are being appealed to on this topic are rather dated.

  21. “I do not know how, nor why, he wrote it if he did not get the information from Joseph Smith. Franklin D. Richards believed it.” hit me as seeing JSFII as a searcher + a revelator.

    It highlights how church leaders rely on precedent in addition to revelation. How important is the work of church historians for leaders of the church? The lifting of the priesthood ban looks like an example where both historical research publication plus revelation finally brought change.

    Loving the transparency of the church in the LDS.org church history topics. Gives some room to discuss authentic church history without us being seen as enemies of the church.

  22. Descendant of Josiah says:

    A little more info on Josiah’s interest in the topic, and his role in disseminating certain ideas about Book of Mormon geography among church members.

    Josiah’s obituary, published October 7, 1937 (the scanned copy on FamilySearch cuts off the name of the newspaper), mentions that his book, “The Romance of the Book of Mormon”, would be published that same month. The adjacent advertisement for the book states:

    “A research study along scientific lines proving the authenticity and divine origin of the Book of Mormon and establishing the ancestry of the American Indian.
    An outstanding pictograph of the early history of the Aztec Indians is given through codices which parallel with the history as related in the Nephite Records. The remarkable close similarity between the picture history of the Aztec Indians and the Book of Mormon’s account of Lehi and Ishmael travels to a new world leaves little doubt in the reader’s mind of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
    Where was the Cradle of Ancient American Culture? Our Ancient Orientals? Ancestors of the Red Man? Did the Messiah visit the American Continent? Is the American Indian of Hebrew origin? These are but a few chapters of a relatively rich and unexplored literature contained in this book. Due to the richness of the subject matter in this book, the Mutual Improvement Association Board of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has compiled from its contents the manual -SCIENCE, TRADITIONS AND THE BOOK OF MORMON – which is being used as the course of study during 1937-38 for the Adult and Senior Classes of the M. I. A. Those following the course of study in the Adult and Senior Classes should have access to this book to derive the fullest benefits from the course of study.
    The scientific findings supporting the divinity of the Book of Mormon as given in this Book will be invaluable to the missionary in his labors. It will prepare him to meet the many questions of an unbelieving world on scientific facts.
    The book ‘The Romance of the Book of Mormon’ can be had through the Deseret Book Company…. Price $2.50, plus 2% Sales Tax in Utah.”

    Source: https://www.familysearch.org/photos/artifacts/6521498

  23. Fascinating.

    I’d always thought the limited geography theory was a relatively recent development, not something espoused nearly a century ago by some (especially in the first presidency).

  24. Remember that Joseph Smith said he found the golden plates in the hill Cumorah, near his home? He also identified other Nephite relics in the United States. It’s clear that he was convinced that the events in the BOM took place all around him. This anchors the BOM geography in New England and North America. The problem is, this region contains no evidence whatsoever for the kinds of civilization outlined in the book. Hence the church’s weak response to questions about BOM geography.

    It’s easy to say that we aren’t interested in the issue, or that it doesn’t matter that much, but it is a central challenge to the credibility of the Book of Mormon of Joseph Smith. That’s the subtext that we (and Joseph Fielding Smith) are dancing around.

    It’s strange that JFS is willing to completely refute modern geology (“This may not be in accord with modern geology, but it is true nevertheless.”) but hesitates to do the same for archaeology or other field of study that have failed to provide evidence in favor of the church’s claims.

  25. “This anchors the BOM geography in New England and North America.” Only if you think Joseph Smith’s reading of the Book of Mormon was divinely revealed, and that’s something that needs to be argued, not assumed.

  26. The location of the hill Cumorah is a real fly in the ointment for those who want to argue away Joseph’s statements as mere opinion.

    Rather than turn to squirrely apologetic denials about what Joseph did or did not mean when he positively identified Nephite landmarks, burial mounds, etc., just focus on Cumorah. Does the absence of corroborating archaeological data from the region have any bearing on the reliability of the Book of Mormon or Joseph’s “translation?”

  27. Aussie Mormon says:

    Can you point out where Joseph Smith referred to the hill in new york as Cumorah?

  28. Joseph Smith History, 1834-1835, pp. 121 to 122 is pretty explicit.

    But you don’t need that. Look at what the church has been teaching for decades, in the introduction to the BOM, in the official artwork titled “Moroni Hides the Plates in the Hill Cumorah,”, and in articles all over the church website. They reflect the original story that Moroni hid the plates in the hill Cumorah, and led Joseph to that very spot hundreds of years later. The apologetic excuses referring to two Hills, magical transportation of plates, etc. is purposefully obtuse, and intellectually suspect.

    Now the church wants to talk out of both sides of its mouth, declaring to those concerned with the issue that it takes no position on BOM geography, but happy to let those unaware of the challenge to continue to believe the traditional narrative.

  29. J. Stapley says:

    Just a note that JSH is an extract of documents not produced by JS, and edited after his death. I consider myself fairly up to speed on most issues related to church history and theology. I also see absolutely no problem with people identifying the hill in Palmyra as a resting place for the plates simultaneously believing that the Book of Mormon narrative occurred in a land far distant. Trying to force the issue is just sort of dumb in my opinion.

  30. “JSH is an extract of documents not produced by JS.”

    Why are you suggesting that JSH was compiled independently of Joseph? That’s not true. “Edited after his death” is a red herring, and you’re sidestepping the issue.

    “I see absolutely no problem with people identifying the hill in Palmyra as a resting place for the plates simultaneously believing that the Book of Mormon narrative occurred in a land far distant.”

    Also seems sort of dumb. The two are contradictory, although your carefully-worded phrasing is trying to obscure that fact. Again, you’re sidestepping the issue. The church is making concrete, historical claims, and the refusing, as you are, to engage with threats to those claims.

    My apologies for the tiresomeness. I will end my rant.

  31. I was taught (quite a while ago) that Moroni had to travel a long distance in order to bury the plates in the NY Hill Cumorah and that the NY Hill Cumorah was named after the original location that was situated somewhere in Central America. Reading the comments above makes me wonder if that was not the norm for primary teaching though…?

  32. J. Stapley says:

    Ted, my critiques of people that cite JSH or the HC as if JS wrote them are legion and well documented. But yeah, move along.

  33. So why is the Palmyra pageant being discontinued?

  34. Aussie Mormon says:

    Maybe people are less interested in putting in the time to actually produce it. It still has this year’s and next years showings so it’s not like they are cutting it off immediately.

  35. ReTx…that has always been my understanding too.

  36. The politics behind the Gospel Topics essay are not immediately apparent to the casual (i.e. average LDS) reader, but what whoever in the Church is responsible for this essay is doing is to split the baby between the two most actively promoted current theories of BoM geography. The quote from Joseph referring to the Upper Midwest as the plains of the Nephites is used by advocates of a geography in the eastern United States. The 1842 Times and Seasons articles about Central American archeological findings are used by those who advocate a geography centered in Meso-america (Central America and southern Mexico). By citing both, the essay seeks to appease both sets of activists.

    The dispute over these sources actually has important implications for Church history which go beyond arguments about BoM geography. One of the advocates of the eastern US geography has done extensive research suggesting that Joseph was editor of the Times & Seasons in this period in name only, and did not review or endorse much of what was printed in this time period. This is significant because many other T&S articles in this time period on controversial topics like patriarchy have been ascribed to Joseph’s authorship in addition to the Central American articles. If in fact Joseph’s involvement was only nominal, a considerable amount of writing ascribed to him may need to be re-evaluated.

    See here for a summary of this argument:

    https://bookofmormonwars.blogspot.com/2019/02/the-times-and-seasons-articles.html

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