Book of Mormon/Geography/New World
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New World Book of Mormon Geography
- Hemispheric geography theory (HGT)—
The Hemispheric Geography Theory (or HGT) is the traditional understanding of the Book of Mormon. It postulates that the events in the book took place over North and South America, with the Isthmus of Panama as the narrow neck of land. (Link)
- Limited geography theory (LGT)—
The Limited Geography Theory (or LGT) is a non-traditional interpretation of the text, but one that has gained wide acceptance among the Book of Mormon scholars and readers over the last 60 years. It is based on a close reading of the text, which indicates that the lands inhabited by the Lehites could be traversed on foot in only a few weeks, making the area no larger than present-day California. (Link)
Part(s) of this criticism are addressed in a video segment from a forthcoming FAIR production. Click here to see video clips on other topics.
1 Nephi takes place in the Old World, but the remainder of the Book of Mormon is located in the "promised land" of the New World, the Americas. Old World locations (such as Jerusalem) are firmly fixed, while the New World geography requires more detective work.
Is there an "official" or revealed geography?
Leaders of the Church have long been clear that there is no "official" or "revealed" geography for the majority of Book of Mormon events, including those which take place in the New World:
- There is a great deal of talk about the geography of the Book of Mormon. Where was the land of Zarahemla? Where was the City of Zarahemla? and other geographic matters. It does not make any difference to us. There has never been anything yet set forth that definitely settles that question. So the Church says we are just waiting until we discover the truth. All kinds of theories have been advanced. I have talked with at least half a dozen men that have found the very place where the City of Zarahemla stood, and notwithstanding the fact that they profess to be Book of Mormon students, they vary a thousand miles apart in the places they have located. We do not offer any definite solution. As you study the Book of Mormon keep these things in mind and do not make definite statements concerning things that have not been proven in advance to be true.
As the Encyclopedia of Mormonism notes:
- The Church has not taken an official position with regard to location of geographical places [of the Book of Mormon].
Because there is no official revealed information on this topic outside of the Book of Mormon text itself (see this page for further statements from Church leaders and writers about geography), students of the Book of Mormon have proposed a number of models to illuminate what the text tells us.
Building a model
There are key geographical features mentioned in the New World accounts in the Book of Mormon. Decisions about how such features are to be interpreted have a major impact upon the final model. Some important issues are:
- Relative distances
- The Hill Cumorah
- Ten essential features of geography
- Cultural features
The first readers of the Book of Mormon tended to conceive of geography stretching for thousands of miles in a north-to-south direction. However, careful examination of the text revealed that the Book of Mormon was quite consistent in its use of distances, and that these distances covered only a few hundred miles at most, and not thousands as some had thought.
As John Sorenson observed:
- How wide and how long were those lands? The hourglass model could, after all, fit either the entire western hemisphere or a relatively small portion of it. It is vital to establish the scale of the territory where the scriptural events were played out. The crucial information in the record for determining dimensions is how long it took people to get from one place to another. Consider the distance between the city of Nephi and the city of Zarahemla. Ammon's party of missionaries trying to reach the land of Nephi "knew not the course they should travel in the wilderness to go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi"; consequently they found the place only after 40 days' journeying (Mosiah 7:4). More helpful is the journey of Alma and his converts, who traveled the same general route in reverse. They left the waters of Mormon, a place probably no more than a couple of days from the city of Nephi, and made it to Zarahemla in 21 days (Mosiah 18:1-7; Mosiah 23:1-3; Mosiah 24:20,25). The party included women, children, and "flocks." How fast could they have traveled?...
- There exists a wide range of possibilities, depending on the terrain, how accustomed the people were to traveling, and whether a single messenger, a whole people, or an army was involved. If we assume that Alma's people and animals went at ordinary speeds, they might plausibly have traveled at a rate of around 11 miles a day. [Sorenson then calculates the total distance from the text, and concludes:]
- So the actual trail or road mileage between Zarahemla and Nephi, the two dominant early cities, must have been on the order of 250 miles, assuming an 11-mile-per-day rate of travel. Given the twists and turns a real route would likely follow in such terrain, the distance as the crow flies would be more like 180.
Using this distance (which is established quite definitively in the text), Sorenson is then able to use other textual evidence to build a model in which the distances traveled in the Book of Mormon do not exceed more than a few hundred miles.
Sorenson's analysis cannot be considered the last word, but any coherent Book of Mormon geography must address the issues of distance within the text, as laid out by Sorenson.
It is interesting that, while the text is internally consistent in suggesting relatively small distances, Joseph Smith's contemporaries did not notice this, and simply read the Book as describing all of North and South America. If, as the critics insist, Joseph or a contemporary composed the Book of Mormon as fiction, why is the text
- incredibly consistent internally, while
- not a match at all for the expectations of Joseph and his fellow 19th century readers?
The Hill Cumorah
It is not clear exactly when the New York hill from which Joseph Smith retrieved the gold plates became associated with the name "Cumorah." Joseph Smith never used the name in his own writings when referring to the plates' resting place. The only use of it from his pen seems to be DC 128:20, which uses the phrase "Glad tidings from Cumorah!" In 1830, Oliver Cowdery referred to the records' location as "Cumorah," while preaching to the Delaware Indians, and by 1835 the term seems to have been in common use among Church members.
One reference comes from a later interview with David Whitmer, who recounted how Oliver Cowdery had written to him, asking for help to transport Joseph and Oliver from Harmony to the Peter Whitmer home in Fayette:
- When I was returning to Fayette, with Joseph and Oliver, all of us riding in the wagon, Oliver and I on an old-fashioned, wooden, spring seat and Joseph behind us; while traveling along in a clear open place, a very pleasant, nice-looking old man suddenly appeared by the side of our wagon and saluted us with, "Good morning, it is very warm," at the same time wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation, and, by a sign from Joseph, I invited him to ride if he was going our way. But he said very pleasantly, "No, I am going to Cumorah." This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant. We all gazed at him and at each other, and as I looked around inquiringly of Joseph, the old man instantly disappeared, so that I did not see him again.
Interestingly, Whitmer is not told that the hill from which Joseph received the record was called Cumorah, but this usage seems to have nevertheless become common within the Church. Given that Whitmer's reminiscence is late, and unsubstantiated by other contemporaneous accounts, some historians question its accuracy, especially in a detail such as the name of the Hill, which later became common Church usage.
Despite this early "identification" of the Hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon with the hill in New York, readers who studied the text closely would later conclude that they could not be the same.
In 1937–1939 Washburn and Washburn argued that the Nephite/Jaredite final battles at the Hill Cumorah were near the narrow neck of land, and thus unlikely to be in New York. Thomas Ferguson was of the same view in 1947, and Sidney Sperry came down on the side of a Middle America location in a 1964 BYU religion class, though he had previously endorsed a New York location.
Since the 1950s, opinion among Book of Mormon scholars has increasingly trended toward the realization that the Nephite Cumorah and the Hill in New York cannot be the same. Elder Dallin H. Oaks recalled his own experience at BYU:
- Here [at BYU] I was introduced to the idea that the Book of Mormon is not a history of all of the people who have lived on the continents of North and South America in all ages of the earth. Up to that time, I had assumed that it was. If that were the claim of the Book of Mormon, any piece of historical, archaeological, or linguistic evidence to the contrary would weigh in against the Book of Mormon, and those who rely exclusively on scholarship would have a promising position to argue.
- In contrast, if the Book of Mormon only purports to be an account of a few peoples who inhabited a portion of the Americas during a few millennia in the past, the burden of argument changes drastically. It is no longer a question of all versus none; it is a question of some versus none. In other words, in the circumstance I describe, the opponents of historicity must prove that the Book of Mormon has no historical validity for any peoples who lived in the Americas in a particular time frame, a notoriously difficult exercise.
In 1981, Palmer identified 13 geographical conditions required for the Book of Mormon Hill Ramah/Cumorah:
- near eastern seacoast
- near narrow neck of land
- on a coastal plain and near other mountains and valleys
- one day's journey south of a large body of water
- an area of many rivers and waters
- presence of fountains
- water gives military advantage
- an escape route southward
- hill large enough to view hundreds of thousands of bodies
- hill must be a significant landmark
- hill must be free standing so people can camp around it
- in temperate climate with no cold or snow
- in a volcanic zone susceptible to earthquakes
Clearly, the placement of Cumorah will greatly affect the map which results. Issues of distance, as discussed above, play a role here as well.
Some authors who have other views on the internal geography have directly disputed the validity of some of David Palmer's criteria for the ancient Cumorah. The question of distance plays an important role in the skeptical views towards these criteria. If it is demonstrated that there is a greater distance between the narrow neck of land and Cumorah, for example, and there is a "northern hinterland" to the Nephite domain, then the questions of climate and so forth in these criteria are not going to apply necessarily to the hill Cumorah. Furthermore, the issues of height have been called into question as well.
Ten essential features of geography
Author John Clark prepared a list of ten key elements which the Book of Mormon text requires for its geography. Any model can be checked against these textual requirements to assess its plausibility:
- A narrow neck (isthmus) separated the land northward from the land southward and was flanked by an east sea and a west sea.
- Nephite and Lamanite lands occupied at least three times as much western coastline as eastern coastline.
- The eastern wilderness was much wider and lower than the western wilderness but not nearly as wide as the southern wilderness.
- The city of Nephi was in a highland valley; Zarahemla was in a large river basin.
- The river Sidon flowed northward through Zarahemla.
- The Waters of Mormon was probably a highland lake of significant size.
- Zarahemla was surrounded by Nephite fortifications.
- The city of Nephi was three weeks’ travel south from Zarahemla and near the Waters of Mormon.
- The city of Bountiful was north of Zarahemla and near the narrow neck; it was about five days’ travel from Moroni and guarded the route to the land northward.
- Cumorah (also called Ramah) was near the eastern sea, not very far north of Bountiful.
Archaeology does not directly impact the building of a Book of Mormon geography, but it can act as a check on a model. Models that place the Book of Mormon in areas which are archaeologically consistent with the Book of Mormon story are more likely to be correct than those which have little archaeological support. Archaeological science is imperfect, of course, and new discoveries can overturn old certitudes. However, a model which matches both geographic and cultural clues gives us greater confidence in its accuracy.
Palmer notes that the following are all cultural aspects of the Book of Mormon account:
- formal political states
- organized religion
- calendar systems
While it is certainly true that Palmer's criteria for the Book of Mormon Cultures apply to the Land Southward cultures under the neck of land, there are skeptical alternate views with regards to whether they apply to the region of Cumorah or not. Those views argue that if there is a northern domain that is far removed from the central urban southern domain, it is not necessary to expect the same archaeological criteria for that northern domain necessarily.
With this background, one can now explore how geographic models have been constructed for the Book of Mormon. These fall into two broad categories, each with its own page:
- [note] From John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 ),8–12. ISBN 1573451576. GospeLink (requires subscrip.); graphic from John W. Welch and J. Gregory Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, Utah: FARMS and Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Texts, 1999), chart 152. ISBN 0934893403. (Permission in digital version granted for non-profit reproduction and distribution if copyright notice intact and material unaltered.)
- [note] From John E. Clark, "A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies (Review of Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon by F. Richard Hauck)," FARMS Review of Books 1/1 (1989): 20–70. off-site; Figure 2 off-site
- [note] For historical review and discussion, see William J. Hamblin, "Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (1993): 161–197. off-site PDF link wiki off-site GL direct link;
- [note] Anthony W. Ivins, Conference Report (April 1929), 16.
- [note] John E. Clark, "Book of Mormon Geography," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, (New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 1:178. off-site off-site
- [note] This is discussed at length in John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 ),1–4. ISBN 1573451576. GospeLink (requires subscrip.) See also John L. Sorenson, Mormon's Map (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 4–8. ISBN 0934893489.
- [note] John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 ), 9. ISBN 1573451576. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- [note] John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 ),8–22. ISBN 1573451576. GospeLink (requires subscrip.) See a more recent discussion by Sorenson in John L. Sorenson, Mormon's Map (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 55–81. ISBN 0934893489.
- [note] Rex C. Reeve, Jr., and Richard O. Cowan, "The Hill Called Cumorah," in Regional Studies in LDS History: New York and Pennsylvania, edited by Larry C. Porter, Milton V. Backman, Jr., and Susan Easton Black (Provo, Utah: Department Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, 1992), 73–74. GL direct link
- [note] Interview with David Whitmer [conducted 7–8 September 1878 in Richmond, Missouri], "Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith," Millennial Star 40 (9 December 1878), 771–774.
- [note] Martin H. Raish, "Encounters with Cumorah: A Selective, Personal Bibliography," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 13/1 (2004): 38–49. off-site PDF link wiki
- [note] Jesse A. Washburn and Jesse N. Washburn, From Babel to Cumorah (Provo, UT: New Era Publishing, 1937).
- [note] Thomas S. Ferguson, Cumorah—Where? (Independence, MO: Zion's, 1947).
- [note] Sidney B. Sperry, Handout, Religion 622 (31 March 1964); published in Sidney B. Sperry, "Were There Two Cumorahs?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/1 (1995): 260–268. off-site PDF link wiki
- [note] Sidney B. Sperry, The Book of Mormon Testifies (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), 335–336. Sperry would later write: "In this volume I have reversed my views, held many years ago, that the Hill Cumorah, around which the last great battles of the Nephites and Jaredites took place, was in the State of New York. The book of Mormon data are very clear and show quite conclusively that the Hill (Ramah to the Jaredites) was in the land of Desolation, somewhere in Middle America. I have summed up my arguments and conclusions in connection with the discussion of Mormon, Chapter 6. My conclusions have been tested in a number of classes of graduate students who were challenged to demonstrate their falsity. Up to the present time, no one has done so. The Hill Cumorah in New York, from which the Prophet Joseph Smith obtained the Nephite plates, may have been so named by Moroni in commemoration of the Cumorah in the land of Desolation, around which his father and fellow Nephites lost their lives in their last struggles with the Lamanites." - Sidney B. Sperry, Book of Mormon Compendium (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968), 6–7.
- [note] See, for example, John E. Clark, "Archaeology and Cumorah Questions," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 13/1 (2004): 144–151. off-site PDF link wiki; John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 ),14–16. ISBN 1573451576. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- [note] Dallin H. Oaks, "The Historicity of the Book of Mormon," (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1994): 2–3.
- [note] David A. Palmer, In Search of Cumorah: New Evidences for the Book of Mormon from Ancient Mexico (Bountiful: Horizon, 1981), 28–72.
- [note] See Andrew H. Hedges, Cumorah and the Limited Mesoamerican Theory off-site and see also Edwin Goble, Resurrecting Cumorah, Second Revised Edition, May 2011
- [note] John E. Clark, "A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies (Review of Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon by F. Richard Hauck)," FARMS Review of Books 1/1 (1989): 20–70. off-site; summarized by John W. Welch and J. Gregory Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, Utah: FARMS and Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Texts, 1999), chart 149. ISBN 0934893403. (Permission in digital version granted for non-profit reproduction and distribution if copyright notice intact and material unaltered.)
- [note] David A. Palmer, "Review of The Land of the Nephites by Delbert W. Curtis," FARMS Review of Books 2/1 (1990): 67–73. off-site