A Reaction to the Church’s Recent Essay on Book of Mormon Geography

Brant Gardner has kindly agreed to offer some comments on the recent Church essay on Book of Mormon geography. He’s a research assistant with Book of Mormon Central and arguably one of the top experts in the question of Book of Mormon geography. I’ve enjoyed discussing the Book of Mormon with Brant going way back to the 90’s when I ran the old Morm-Ant mailing list to discuss ancient history as it related to Mormon scripture. Since then Brant’s published some groundbreaking work. I think his The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon is the main sustained overview of the underlying translation process of the Book of Mormon. That is not just the actions of Joseph Smith but what we should say about the nature of the text itself as a translation. There are few books I’d characterize as “must reads” in Mormon theology but I think this is one of them. He also has the excellent The Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History engaging in issues related to a mesoamerican historical setting for the text. He’s also has an well received commentary on the Book of Mormon text itself that tries to bring in insights from a purported mesoamerican setting.

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The recent Gospel Topics essay on Book of Mormon geography makes two things as clear as possible: the Church has no position on Book of Mormon geography and “the Book of Mormon is most rewarding when one focuses on its primary purpose—to testify of Jesus Christ” (quoting President Nelson).[1] When combined with the statement that “The Church urges local leaders and members not to advocate theories of Book of Mormon geography in official Church settings,” the essay can easily be read as a longer version of Elder Uchtdorf’s poignant “stop it.”[2]

For those of us who spend time either directly on the question of Book of Mormon geography, or its implications, I think it is important to note the distinction that was made between teaching a non-endorsed theory in a Church setting and proposing that same non-endorsed theory in other venues. The ability to study, discuss, and attempt to understand Book of Mormon geography is not proscribed, only the ability to claim directly or by implication that there is a special endorsement behind it. The Church doesn’t endorse any geography. Since they don’t endorse a geography, it seems dicey to claim one through revelation given to early Saints—or a later investigator.

For me, as an investigator of the implications of Book of Mormon geography, the most important part of the essay is the quotation from President Anthony W. Ivins (then a Counselor in the First Presidency): “There has never ben anything yet set forth that definitely settles that question [of Book of Mormon geography]. So the Church ways we are just waiting until we discover the truth.”[3] I really believe that is the message. There is nothing revealed. It is fine to work to find the truth—just don’t proclaim that you have anything other than a scholar’s opinion.

The church’s message didn’t also include an admonition to increase the civility of the discussions about Book of Mormon geography. Perhaps the Internet simply exposes a larger number of opinions that used to remain private—and then amplifies them. We could do with another admonition from Elder Uchtdorf to stop it. This really is an academic discussion, not a religious one. The salvific value of the Book of Mormon remains whether one thinks it took place in New York, the middle of the United States, Baja, Mesoamerica, Central America, northern South America, Western South America—or even Malaysia.[4] No one’s value as a member of the church is altered based on which geography she or he prefers.

While I do think we need to stop the rancor, I don’t think we need to stop the questions. I don’t think we stop evaluating geographies. It is probable that most who propose a geography sincerely believe it, and it is certain that they will state their case as strongly as possible. That is part of the process of trying to discover the truth. However, the other part of discovering truth is that all those who propose a geography will be subject to scrutiny and will be asked questions. Hard questions. No parent likes to be told their child is ugly. Fortunately, we can discuss Book of Mormon geography on more neutral data rather than subjective aesthetics. Our discussions must be involved with the data and less of the hurt feelings that more naturally arise when our “baby” is criticized.

When I find a different suggested Book of Mormon geography, I have a procedure I use to evaluate it. My beginning assumption is that it could be right. If I assume it is wrong from the beginning, then that assumption will be self-fulling. I won’t find anything correct about it. If I at least assume that it might be correct, and accept the proposer’s original assumptions, then I can evaluate it based on data rather than an assumptive dismissal.

When evaluating a geography, I assume that the proposer has found the big pieces, a land northward, a land southward, oceans, and a narrow neck. I accept those definitions to see how the rest of the model fits into the geography. Since most who propose a geography are looking first for those large markers, I assume they found something. The question is whether everything else works.

I assume a human population in antiquity lived through the events and migrations in the Book of Mormon. While we don’t have precise distances, the requirements of humanity dictate basic bounds. For example, traveling from a Zarahemla in Central American to a Nephi in Chile is simply too far for any known human population in the timeframes we find in the Book of Mormon. Positing that all travel was on horseback doesn’t fit any known population in the Americas (nor is it suggested in the text of the Book of Mormon). Using rivers is more plausible, although also surprisingly absent in the text if that were really the main mode of travel. If the proposer suggests distances farther than normal populations walk in a day, then I am looking to see how the proposer explains the distances. If there is an explanation, I accept it for purposes of continuing to give the benefit of the doubt.

Next, the relative location of cities should match the text. Basic distances are certainly not fixed, but relative locations are. All indications in the text are that Zarahemla is north of the land of Nephi. If Zarahemla were posited to be south, it would be an immediate red flag (and require a really good explanation, or it becomes an immediate dismissal).

My personal test for the fit of the real world and the text is to look at Manti. Manti is a small enough piece that it doesn’t get considered when a proposer puts together a geography. They haven’t gone looking for a place first (like the narrow neck), so little attention is paid to it. However, the text gives some pretty clear requirements:

• It is near the headwater of the Sidon
• It is near the most common entry point from the land of Nephi into Zarahemla, hence it is placed at that location to be a fortified strong point.
• It is approached on the east through an east-west running valley.
The east-west valley is often neglected. I am only aware of two potential geographies that have Manti placed correctly near and east-west running valley.

The military nature of the city is also important. It is the first line of defense at a common entry point. If a geography is such that it an army could easily move from south to north by simply going around Manti at a distance where the army wouldn’t be detected, then it cannot fulfill its textual military function. I have seem some geographies where an army could easily get to Zarahemla without going anywhere near Manti as placed in that geography.

I also take a look at the location of Bountiful, which should be near the east coast but still provide a military barrier to travel through the narrow neck of land. As with Manti, it can be easily by-passed, then it doesn’t fulfill the same function in the proposed geography as it does in the text.

As a final aspect of the geography, I look at the 3 Nephi events. At least three different LDS geologists have noted that the events best describe a type of volcanic eruption. Therefore, I look for the possibilities of a volcano, the possibilities of flooding that would sink cities, or for the proposed geography’s alternate explanation. Alternate explanations have multiple conditions that have to be met, and the geologists don’t find them except in a volcanic eruption. The length of time listed in the text, for example, is significantly longer than known earthquakes.

Once I finish with the geography, the next step is to look at the people who lived there at the appropriate time. Geographies that require that a large part of land was underwater at a time when people were living there are pretty much excluded. Geographies that require that land be above water that hasn’t been above water for hundreds of thousands of years is also disqualified.

Once we find a population, then it has to fit the requirements of the text. This gets a little interpretive because the Book of Mormon doesn’t give us some of the information we want as clearly as we might want it. For example, we know that the Book of Mormon peoples had to have an agriculturally based economy. We learn that from the text when we see crops damaged in war that lead to famine as well as in the inverse when Nephites dismiss the Lamanites as hunters—with the clear implication that the Nephites were not. To this is added what archaeology and anthropology know about the nature of communities and the sizes that can be sustained with only hunting and gathering, a combination of hunting and gathering with limited agriculture, and a full agricultural base where sufficient calories are provided. Only the last of the three can support the numbers and described community complexity described in the Book of Mormon. Any region without a solid agricultural foundation won’t be the Book of Mormon lands.

If I can get this far in my analysis, then I am ready for what I think is the most important benefit of Book of Mormon geography. I borrow from our understanding of the Old and New Testaments, which are enriched by understanding the people and the social circumstances of the world in which they are set. Just as we can learn much to help us understand the text of the Bible because we know the basics of the lands on which biblical peoples lived, we should be able to enrich our understanding of the Book of Mormon if we have the correct geography. This isn’t a case where a similarity between something in the New World and the Old somehow proves the Book of Mormon. Those things can be interesting, but they are seldom instructive about the text. The closer we are to finding a geography of the Book of Mormon that helps us understand the text because we know the topography, or we know the cultures that surrounded them, then we are more likely to have found the right geography.

I believe that the Gospel Topics essay allows us to continue to seek the truth of the real-world location of the Book of Mormon. I also believe that when we find that truth, the Book of Mormon will be better explained in that geography than it is without it.

1. The essay may be found here: https://www.lds.org/manual/gospel-topics/book-of-mormon-geography

2. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Merciful Obtain Mercy,” General Conference, April 2012. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2012/04/the-merciful-obtain-mercy

3. The Gospel Topics essay as well as Anthony W. Ivins, in Conference Report, Apr. 1929, 16.

4. There are proposals for each of those areas, with typically multiple versions of how those regions fit into the text.

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