Book of Mormon/Geography/Statements/Twentieth century/First Presidency Letter

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PERSPECTIVES MEDIA QUESTIONS RESOURCES 2014 CONFERENCE

    Did the First Presidency identify the New York "Hill Cumorah" as the site of the Nephite final battles?

QUESTIONS


Did the First Presidency identify the New York "Hill Cumorah" as the site of the Nephite final battles?


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

CONCLUSION


The First Presidency's secretary apparently answered a question according to his own understanding, and then at the direction of the First Presidency later clarified/corrected his statement to indicate that while many Latter-day Saints have expressed opinions about the location of Cumorah (or other Book of Mormon geography issues), the Church has no official geography. No revelatory basis exists for any geographical scheme outside of the Book of Mormon text itself.

DETAILED QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Initial letter

In 1990, F. Michael Watson (secretary to the First Presidency) sent a letter to a questioner which read as follows:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Office of the First Presidency
Salt Lake City, Utah 84150
October 16, 1990
Bishop Darrel L. Brooks
Moore Ward
Oklahoma City Oklahoma South Stake
1000 Windemere
Moore, OK 73160
Dear Bishop Brooks:
I have been asked to forward to you for acknowledgment and handling the enclosed copy of a letter to President Gordon B. Hinckley from Ronnie Sparks of your ward. Brother Sparks inquired about the location of the Hill Cumorah mentioned in the Book of Mormon, where the last battle between the Nephites and Lamanites took place.
The Church has long maintained, as attested to by references in the writings of General Authorities, that the Hill Cumorah in western New York state is the same as referenced in the Book of Mormon.
The Brethren appreciate your assistance in responding to this inquiry, and asked that you convey to Brother Sparks their commendation for his gospel study.
Sincerely yours,
(signed)
F. Michael Watson
Secretary to the First Presidency
Letter from F. Michael Watson sent 16 October 1990.

Clarification

It is apparent that Bro. Watson seems to have been speaking on his own understanding of the matter, and not as an official declaration of Church policy. Two statements made available within the next three years clarified the Church's opinion on the matter. The first was the publication of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Although not an official statement of Church policy, two members of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elders Oaks and Maxwell, served as advisers during the production of the Encyclopedia. Thus, we have the following statement published in 1992:

In 1928 the Church purchased the western New York hill and in 1935 erected a monument recognizing the visit of the angel Moroni (see Angel Moroni Statue). A visitors center was later built at the base of the hill. Each summer since 1937, the Church has staged the Cumorah Pageant at this site. Entitled America's Witness for Christ, it depicts important events from Book of Mormon history. This annual pageant has reinforced the common assumption that Moroni buried the plates of Mormon in the same hill where his father had buried the other plates, thus equating this New York hill with the Book of Mormon Cumorah. Because the New York site does not readily fit the Book of Mormon description of Book of Mormon geography, some Latter-day Saints have looked for other possible explanations and locations, including Mesoamerica. Although some have identified possible sites that may seem to fit better (Palmer), there are no conclusive connections between the Book of Mormon text and any specific site that has been suggested.
—David A. Palmer, "Cumorah" in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

On April 23, 1993, F. Michael Watson arranged for a clarification letter after a discussion with a FARMS staffer. The text is similar and consistent with what was published in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism the previous year:

The Church emphasizes the doctrinal and historical value of the Book of Mormon, not its geography. While some Latter-day Saints have looked for possible locations and explanations [for Book of Mormon geography] because the New York Hill Cumorah does not readily fit the Book of Mormon description of Cumorah, there are no conclusive connections between the Book of Mormon text and any specific site.[1]

Since the text of this letter was published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, some critics have charged the FARMS authors with either manipulating the Church into sending the letter, or forging the letter text altogether.

Matt Roper of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship located a faxed copy of the same statement sent from the Office of the First Presidency, along with its cover page, and sent FAIR a copy with permission to post it. The 1993 fax was sent by Senior Executive Secretary for the Office of the First Presidency, Carla Ogden, to Brent Hall of FARMS. (Sister Ogden continues to serve in this position as of 2009). The text of the fax matches exactly the text reported to have been in the response by Watson as described in the FARMS Review. The cover letter reads as follows:

I thought you would be interested in this FAX from Michael Watson, secretary to the First Presidency. We have been receiving a number of questions from the Oklahoma, Texas area where anti-Mormons are using a letter from Brother Watson to a Bishop where Brother Watson said that the Church supports only one location for Cumorah, and that is the New York location. I talked with him on the phone the other day and told him of the questions that were coming to us. He responded that the First Presidency would like to clear up that Issue and he would FAX me with that clarification.

Thanks

[signed] Brent [Hall]

Fax from the Office of the First Presidency to FARMS dated April 23, 1993.

(Phone and numbers have been redacted from these scans; they are otherwise unaltered. The top of the First Presidency's fax had "Apr 23 '93 12:25 PM FIRST PRESIDENCY SLC P.1" in fainter letters applied by the receiving fax, which does not appear on the scan.)

Joseph Fielding Smith

Critics sometimes appeal to remarks by Joseph Fielding Smith that argue for a New York location. One review of this topic noted:

In 1938 Elder Joseph Fielding Smith wrote an article published in the Deseret News arguing against what he then termed the "modernist" theory that the final battlefield of the Nephites and Jaredites may have been in Central America rather than in New York. In 1956 this article was included in a selection of Elder Smith's writings compiled by his son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie. Although Elder Smith would later become president of the church in 1970, his article arguing for a New York location as the scene of the final battlefield was written many years before he assumed that position, and he apparently never revisited the question as president of the church. There is evidence that Elder Smith may have softened his opposition on the Cumorah question. In a letter written to Fletcher B. Hammond, who argued emphatically for a Central American location and had sent Elder Smith a copy of his findings, the apostle explained, "I am sure this will be very interesting although I have never paid any attention whatever to Book of Mormon geography because it appears to me that it is inevitable that there must be a great deal of guesswork."  Apparently, he did not consider his 1938 argument as settled and definitive or as a measure of doctrinal orthodoxy.
Sidney B. Sperry, after whom an annual Brigham Young University symposium is named, was also one who initially supported the New York Cumorah view (that is, an area of New York as the final battlefield of the Nephites and Jaredites). During the 1960s, as he began to explore the issue, he came to a different conclusion... Reversing his earlier position, he wrote: "It is now my very carefully studied and considered opinion that the Hill Cumorah to which Mormon and his people gathered was somewhere in Middle America. The Book of Mormon evidence to this effect is irresistible and conclusive to one who will approach it with an open mind. This evidence has been reviewed by a few generations of bright students in graduate classes who have been given the challenge to break it down if they can. To date none has ever been able to do so."  Sperry, who was very familiar with what Joseph Fielding Smith had previously written, told him that he did not feel comfortable publishing something that contradicted what the apostle had written, but that he and other sincere students of the Book of Mormon had come to that conclusion only after serious and careful study of the text. Sperry said that Elder Smith then lovingly put his arm around his shoulder and said, "Sidney, you are as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine. You go ahead and publish it." [2]

It seems clear, then, that Elder (later President) Smith did not regard his views as the product of revelation, nor did he regard it as illegitimate to have a different view of the matter.

Endnotes

  1. [note]  Correspondence from Michael Watson, Office of the First Presidency, 23 April 1993. Cited with commentary in 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 wiki off-site GL direct link
  2. [note]  Matthew Roper, "Losing the Remnant: The New Exclusivist "Movement" and the Book of Mormon (A review of "Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America" by: Bruce H. Porter and Rod L. Meldrum)," FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 87–124. off-site wiki

Further reading

FairMormon Answers articles


The geographical setting of the Book of Mormon has been the subject of serious study and casual speculation since before the book was first published. We describe the various theories and examine the strengths and weaknesses of each. (Click here for full article)

  • Old World
    Brief Summary: Old World or Arabian, geography - this considers the journey from Jerusalem to Old World Bountiful, where Nephi constructed the ship. (Click here for full article)
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    • Lehi's cave
      Brief Summary: I've heard about a place in the Arabian desert called "Lehi's cave." Does this provide evidence for the Book of Mormon? (Click here for full article)
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  • New World
    Brief Summary: New World geography - location of the majority of the Book of Mormon narrative, in the "promised land"—somewhere in the western hemisphere. (Click here for full article)
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    • Hemispheric geography theory (HGT)
      Brief Summary: 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. (Click here for full article)
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    • Limited geography theory (LGT)
      Brief Summary: 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. (Click here for full article)
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    • Location of the Hill Cumorah
      Brief Summary: If Mormon chapter 6 is a literal description of the destruction of the Nephites by the Lamanites — approximately 100 thousand were killed by swords and axes — why hasn't any evidence of the battle been found at the site that was traditionally identified as the hill Cumorah in western New York state? (Click here for full article)
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  • Statements
    Brief Summary: Statements made by Church leaders, members, and publications about Book of Mormon geography issues (Click here for full article)
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    • No revealed geography
      Brief Summary: A collection of statements indicating that there is no revealed geography for the Book of Mormon (these quotes are also in the collections below, by date). (Click here for full article)
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    • Statements by Hugh Nibley
      Brief Summary: LDS scholar Hugh Nibley is sometimes cited out of context by advocates of a geography theory who wish to claim his support for their ideas. They do this to disguise that Nibley argued for Mesoamerican involvement in the Book of Mormon. All of Nibley's statements should be considered if one wishes to know what he thought. (Click here for full article)
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  • Models
    Brief Summary: Book of Mormon geographical models (Click here for full article)
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  • Disdaining Joseph?
    Brief Summary: Do LDS scholars "disdain" the statements of Joseph Smith related to Book of Mormon geography? (Click here for full article)
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  • Definition of "continent" in the 1820s
    Brief Summary: With regard to the location of Book of Mormon lands, it is sometimes claimed that "[t]here's a North American continent and a South American continent in Noah Webster's [1850] dictionary," and that this means that all references to "this continent" must refer to North America. Webster's 1828 dictionary defines a ""continent"" as follows: "1. In geography, a great extent of land, not disjoined or interrupted by a sea; a connected tract of land of great extent; as the Eastern and Western continent. It differs from an isle only in extent. New Holland may be denominated a continent. Britain is called a continent, as opposed to the isle of Anglesey." Therefore, Webster's definition of a "Eastern and Western continent" is equivalent to today's definition of "Eastern and Western hemisphere." (Click here for full article)
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  • Location of Zarahemla
    Brief Summary: It is claimed that the location of the city of Zarahemla was provided to Joseph Smith through revelation and that it was located on the Mississippi River opposite where Nauvoo is located today. (Click here for full article)
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  • Borders of the Lamanites
    Brief Summary: Does the proposal of a Mesoamerican limited geographical Book of Mormon setting contradict D&C 54:8, which discusses the "borders of the Lamanites" being in North America? (Click here for full article)
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  • No maps in the Book of Mormon
    Brief Summary: Why are there no maps in the Book of Mormon? (Click here for full article)
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  • Transoceanic Crossing
    Brief Summary: The Book of Mormon, in 1 Nephi chapters 17 and 18, recounts that Nephi built a ship in which the Lehi colony sailed from the old world to the new. In June 2010 the History Channel aired a documentary, "Who Really Discovered America?" which claims that it would have been impossible for a ship (such as that made by Nephi) to have successfully carried the people and necessary supplies in a transoceanic crossing. (Click here for full article)
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Sometimes falsified artifacts are used to promote a Book of Mormon geography (Click here for full article)

  • Bat Creek Stone
    Brief Summary: The "Bat Creek Stone" purports to a stone written in Paleo-Hebrew reading "for the Jews". A preponderance of the evidence available argues that the stone is a modern forgery. As exciting as it would be to find a genuine ancient inscription, it would only harm others' belief in the Book of Mormon to advocate forgeries in contradiction of good evidence. (Click here for full article)
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  • Burrows Cave artifacts
    Brief Summary: The Burrows Cave collection is a group of objects supposedly found in a Cave in Illinois, named after Russell Burrows, the person who claimed to have found the cave. To this day, Burrows Cave enthusiasts have never demonstrated the existence of the cave. The artifacts contain many obvious hallmarks of modern manufacture, including the so-called "mystic symbol" found on artifacts in the Michigan artifacts collection. This is offered as evidence that the hoaxers deliberately meant to associate these artifacts with the Michigan collection. Some LDS people have fallen prey to those who push these artifacts as genuine. (Click here for full article)
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  • Michigan artifacts
    Brief Summary: The "Michigan Artifacts" or "Michigan relics" are a group of "artifacts" produced by hoaxers in the late 19th century and around the turn of the 20th Century from Michigan. They wanted to produce "proof" of the existence of the ancient civilization known in 19th century lore as the Mound Builders. Many contain scenes from biblical stories. Some LDS members have been misled into believing that the artifacts are genuine. Not surprisingly, advocates of the Michigan artifacts also push the Burrows Cave collection. (Click here for full article)
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  • Newark Decalogue Stone
    Brief Summary: These items, which were presented to the public in 1860, have Hebrew writing on them. Some have used them as evidence for the Book of Mormon, but this is problematic on two grounds: (1) the items may be modern forgeries; and (2) even if authentic, the writing dates to around AD 100-300, which is too late to represent the 600 BC Lehi colony. (Click here for full article)
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