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Response to "Difficult Questions for Mormons: Book of Mormon Geography"


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Response to claim: "Why isn't the terrain of Central America described?"

The author(s) of Difficult Questions for Mormons make(s) the following claim:

Response to claim: "Why isn't the terrain of Central America described?"

FairMormon Response


Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda and/or spin - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

The Book of Mormon was not intended to be a geography primer: It was written as a spiritual history of a group of people. Any mention of geography is there simply to support the narrative. The authors did not intend to use up precious space on the metal plates describing geographical details that had nothing to do with the purpose of the record.

Response to claim: "Why is it that numerous LDS books and papers describe proposed Book of Mormon locations for cities and the 'narrow neck of land'? No city has been identified as being Nephite, Lamanite, Jaredite, etc."

The author(s) of Difficult Questions for Mormons make(s) the following claim:

Response to claim: "Why is it that numerous LDS books and papers describe proposed Book of Mormon locations for cities and the 'narrow neck of land'? No city has been identified as being Nephite, Lamanite, Jaredite, etc. For example, Zarahemla was occupied for hundreds of years, but we still don't have any real evidence of it ever existing. The Book of Mormon describes a time period from 2000 BC to 400 AD and millions of people. No city they occupied has yet to be found."

FairMormon Response


Fact checking results: This claim contains mistakes and/or errors - The author has stated erroneous or incorrect information or misinterpreted their sources

Plenty of cities have been found, with new cities being located periodically. However, it is not yet possible to determine whether or not those cities were occupied by Book of Mormon peoples because of the Mesoamerican practice of constructing new buildings on the ruins of old ones.

Response to claim: "Why didn't any of the place names from the Book of Mormon still exist when Columbus arrived?"

The author(s) of Difficult Questions for Mormons make(s) the following claim:

Response to claim: "Why didn't any of the place names from the Book of Mormon still exist when Columbus arrived?"

FairMormon Response


Fact checking results: This claim contains mistakes and/or errors - The author has stated erroneous or incorrect information or misinterpreted their sources

Practically all of the original place and city names in Mesoamerica have been lost, not just any that could have been related to the Book of Mormon. Ironically, one of the few cities which has retained its original name is called "Lamanai."

Question: What do we find in Mesoamerican archaeology with respect to place names, such as city names?

In Mesoamerica, toponyms often disappeared from one era to the next

What do we find in Mesoamerican archaeology with respect to toponyms [toponyms = place names, such as city names]? First, unlike the biblical lands where many toponyms survived due to a continuity of culture, there is no reason to assume that Maya languages and Nephite languages were related. Secondly, we find that toponyms often disappeared from one era to the next. Many of the Mesoamerican cities today have Spanish names such as San Lorenzo, La Venta, and El Mirador. The “collapse of the indigenous civilizations before the conquistadors created a sharp historical discontinuity. We have the names of almost none of the Classic Mayan and Olmec cities of two millennia ago, which is why they are known today under Spanish titles.”[1] Archaeologists simply don’t know what many of the original names for these Mayan cities were. If archaeologists don’t know the names of some cities they have discovered, how could one expect to provide English names for those cities, such as names provided in the Book of Mormon?[2]

Additionally, scholars are uncertain as to the pronunciation of Mesoamerican cities for which they do have names. This is because city-inscriptions are often iconographic, and not all scholars agree that such icons represent city names. These icons are not only rare (as noted above) but they are symbolic rather than phonetic. In other words, when archaeologists find an iconographic inscription designating a place as the Hill of the Jaguar, the pronunciation of this inscription would be dependent on the language of the speaker—be it a Zapotec, a Mixtec, or a Nephite.[3] The only way to identify an ancient site is by way of an inscription giving a phonetically intelligible name. Barring further discoveries, we may never know how the names of Mesoamerican cities were pronounced in Book of Mormon times.

If the epigraphic [e.g., inscriptions on stones or monuments] data from the Old World were as slim as the epigraphic data from the New World, scholars would be severely limited in their understanding of the Israelites or early Christianity. It would likely be impossible, using strictly non-epigraphic [i.e., non-written, non-language based] archaeological evidences, to distinguish between Canaanites and Israelites when they co-existed in the pre-Babylonian (pre-587 B.C.) Holy Land.[4] We find that the same problems would be apparent in the study of early Christianity if scholars were faced with the absence of epigraphic data. For instance, if Diocletian’s persecutions of Christianity had been successful, if Constantine had never converted, and if Christianity had disappeared around A.D. 300, it would be very difficult if not impossible to reconstruct the history of Christianity using nothing but archaeological artifacts and imperial Roman inscriptions.[5]

“It is quite possible,” notes Hamblin, “for a religion, especially an aniconic religion [a religion which does not use written, symbolic images], to simply disappear from the archaeological record. Despite the fact that there were several million Christians in the Roman [E]mpire in the late third century, it is very difficult to [discover] almost anything of substance about them from archaeology alone.”[6]

One of the very few ancient cities in Mesoamerica for which the pre-Columbian name is known is named "Lamanai"

Did you know that one of the very few ancient cities in Mesoamerica for which the pre-Columbian name is known is named "Lamanai"? It means "submerged crocodile." According to Wikipedia, "The site's name is pre-Columbian, recorded by early Spanish missionaries, and documented over a millennium earlier in Maya inscriptions as Lam'an'ain." Read about it in Wikipedia: Lamanai. We're not saying that this is a Book of Mormon city, but the name makes you think.

Wikipedia entry on the ancient city of Lamanai located on the Yucatan peninsula. The city of Lamani, unlike other Mesoamerican archaeological sites, retains its original name.


Response to claim: "Where was the Hill Cumorah? Was it in New York or Central America?"

The author(s) of Difficult Questions for Mormons make(s) the following claim:

Response to claim: "Where was the Hill Cumorah? Was it in New York or Central America? If it was in Central America, why hasn't it been found? If it was in New York, how did they move that quickly and where are all the remains?"

FairMormon Response


Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda and/or spin - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

We do not know where the Book of Mormon took place. Some believe that it was Mesoamerica, and some believe that it took place in New York. The Church has not authoritatively identified a location. However, asking why a specific hill in Central America, whose original name has been lost hundreds of years, cannot be found, is a pointless exercise.

Question: Where is the Hill Cumorah?

Joseph Smith never used the name "Cumorah" in his own writings when referring to the gold plates' resting place

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.[7]

David 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

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.[8]

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.[9]

The Book of Mormon text indicates that the Hill Cumorah in which the Nephite records were hidden is not the same location as the one where Moroni hid his plates

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.[10] Thomas Ferguson was of the same view in 1947,[11]and Sidney Sperry came down on the side of a Middle America location in a 1964 BYU religion class,[12] though he had previously endorsed a New York location.[13]

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

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.[14] 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.[15]

There are 13 geographical conditions required for the Book of Mormon Hill Cumorah

In 1981, Palmer identified 13 geographical conditions required for the Book of Mormon Hill Ramah/Cumorah:

  1. near eastern seacoast
  2. near narrow neck of land
  3. on a coastal plain and near other mountains and valleys
  4. one day's journey south of a large body of water
  5. an area of many rivers and waters
  6. presence of fountains
  7. water gives military advantage
  8. an escape route southward
  9. hill large enough to view hundreds of thousands of bodies
  10. hill must be a significant landmark
  11. hill must be free standing so people can camp around it
  12. in temperate climate with no cold or snow
  13. in a volcanic zone susceptible to earthquakes[16]

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.[17] 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.


Question: Does the Church authoritatively identify the location of the Hill Cumorah?

The Church has no official position on any New World location described in the Book of Mormon

First, it is not the case that the Church authoritatively identifies the drumlin in western New York as the same Hill Cumorah mentioned in the text of the Book of Mormon. The Church has made it abundantly clear that it does not endorse any particular view of Book of Mormon geography.

The Church has no official position on any New World location described in the Book of Mormon. There is no official revelation in the Church establishing the drumlin in New York as the Hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon where two nations were destroyed. It is true that a number of Church leaders in the past expressed the opinion that the hill in New York is the same hill described in the Book of Mormon. Whether that opinion was based on personal revelation to those individuals cannot be known. And even if so, personal testimony on points such as this are contradictory, and are not binding on the Church, regardless of how high the position was of the person making the assertion. Only new revelation following proper procedure, and being accepted by the Church as a whole as binding can clear up this point. Statements from Joseph Smith or others on geography are not binding on the Church, despite the claims of various theorists.

There is no clear indication that Joseph Smith ever applied the name "Cumorah" to the hill in New York

There is no clear indication that Joseph Smith ever applied the name "Cumorah" to the hill in New York:

At what point in modern times this New York hill was first called Cumorah is difficult to determine. In his account in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith refers to the hill where the plates were buried, but never calls it by any name. In the Doctrine and Covenants the name 'Cumorah' only appears one time, in an 1842 epistle written by Joseph Smith: 'And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah' (DC 128:20). No other uses of 'Cumorah' have been found in any other of Joseph Smith's personal writings. When this name does appear it has been added by later editors or is being quoted from another individual.[18]

A late account from David Whitmer is the earliest possible association of the name with the New York hill

A late account from David Whitmer is the earliest possible association of the name with the New York hill, though it is long after the fact:

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 in a clear open place, who saluted us with "Good morning, it is very warm," at the same instant 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 was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant, and as I looked enquiringly at Joseph, the old man instantly disappeared so that I did not see him again.[19]

Even this use of the term does not identify any specific site with Cumorah.


Response to claim: "Why don't gaps exist in the archeological record of Mesoamerica if these missing people existed?"

The author(s) of Difficult Questions for Mormons make(s) the following claim:

Response to claim: "Why don't gaps exist in the archeological record of Mesoamerica if these missing people existed?"

FairMormon Response


Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda and/or spin - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

This question doesn't even make any sense. First of all, we do not know if the Book of Mormon people are associated with any of the known groups in the New World, so we cannot even know if there are, or are not, "gaps" in the archaeological record that correlate with them. Second, there is no such thing as an archaeological record that does not contain "gaps" that need to be filled in. If such were the case, we would have no need for archaeologists, whose job it is to study the archaeological record and fill such "gaps."

Response to claim: "Did the Book of Mormon take place outside of Mesoamerica?"

The author(s) of Difficult Questions for Mormons make(s) the following claim:

Response to claim: "Did the Book of Mormon take place outside of Mesoamerica? The History of the Church records an incident from June, 1834 in which JS identified a skeleton found in an Indian burial mound in Illinois: ". . . the visions of the past being opened to my understanding by the Spirit of the Almighty, I discovered the person whose skeleton was before us was a white Lamanite, a large, thick-set man, and a man of God. His name was Zelph . . . who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea to the Rocky mountains." (HOC 1948 ed., II: 79-80)."

FairMormon Response


Fact checking results: This claim contains mistakes and/or errors - The author has stated erroneous or incorrect information or misinterpreted their sources

The authors refer to the story of Zelph, who was claimed by Joseph Smith to be a "white Lamanite," and whose bones were located in North America. However, the Book of Mormon does not mention Zelph. His story, whatever it may be, takes place outside of the Book of Mormon narrative and geographical area. The Book of Mormon talks of people traveling to the lands northward, but it does not contain any information about those people once they left.

Question: Does the story of Zelph have implications for Book of Mormon geography?

Joseph Smith was of the opinion that the natives of the area had something to do with Book of Mormon peoples

Whatever the case with the Zelph reports, Joseph Smith was of the opinion that the natives of the area had something to do with Book of Mormon peoples, calling them "Nephites." In a statement in a letter to his wife, dated June 3, 1834, he wrote:

The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest and sincere men, wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls and their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity, and gazing upon a country the fertility, the splendour and the goodness so indescribable, all serves to pass away time unnoticed.[20]

But keep in mind, that even in the Book of Mormon, groups such as the Mulekites and the people of Ammon joined the Nephite Nation over time and were called by the name Nephite, only because they had given their allegiance to that faction politically. This had nothing to do with ancestry in a great many cases. Therefore, Joseph Smith's use of the word here doesn't necessarily imply ancestry of the peoples in the area. Furthermore, Joseph Smith's opinions on these points are not necessarily based on revelation, nor are they necessarily any more reliable than the rest of the opinions previously held by other General Authorites, some of whom later held the same office that Joseph Smith held. Since their opinions were not all the same, there is no reason to assume that anyone had actual revelation on these points. Only future revelation can clarify these points.

Joseph Smith would also make later remarks that included Central America and its inhabitants as also being relevant to Book of Mormon geography and peoples

Joseph Smith would also make later remarks that included Central America and its inhabitants as also being relevant to Book of Mormon geography and peoples. (See Bernhisel letter and July 1842 Times and Seasons Wilford Woodruff, who wrote one of the Zelph accounts, also regarded a book on Central American ruins to be evidence for the Book of Mormon account (See City of Copan). Parley P. Pratt (March 1842 and Orson Pratt (August 1843) were of a similar view.


Response to claim: "Why don't any archeologists theorize any Hebrew or Egyptian linkages or influences in Mesoamerica?"

The author(s) of Difficult Questions for Mormons make(s) the following claim:

Response to claim: "Why don't any archeologists theorize any Hebrew or Egyptian linkages or influences in Mesoamerica?"

FairMormon Response


Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda and/or spin - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

A better question is why do some Mormons assume such links? It is pretty rare that the wider cultural norms will be shifted to adapt to the small immigrant population, particularly when the survival skills in a new region depended upon different materials, animals and plants. As for art--how much art would we think Lehites hauled through the desert for 8 years and then across the ocean. If it wasn't "in style" in the New World, why continue it?

Notes

  1. See Hamblin, “Basic Methodological Problems," 167.
  2. Hamblin, “Basic Methodological Problems," 169–170.
  3. [citation needed]
  4. William J. Hamblin, message posted 20 October 2004 in thread, “Not So Easy? 2 BoM Challenge,” on FAIRboards.org off-site (accessed 10 April 2005). See also follow-up: William Hamblin, message posted 28 October 2004 in thread, “Not So Easy? 3” on FAIRboards.org off-site (accessed 10 April 2005).
  5. William J. Hamblin, message posted 20 October 2004 in thread, “Not So Easy? 2 BoM Challenge,” on FAIRboards.org off-site (accessed 10 April 2005)
  6. William J. Hamblin, message posted 28 October 2004 in thread, “Not So Easy? 2 BoM Challenge,” on FAIRboards.org off-site (accessed 10 April 2005).
  7. Rex C. Reeve, Jr., and Richard O. Cowan, "The Hill Called Cumorah," in Larry C. Porter, Milton V. Backman, Jr., and Susan Easton Black, eds., Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint History: New York and Pennsylvania (Provo: BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1992), 73–74.
  8. 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.
  9. Martin H. Raish, "Encounters with Cumorah: A Selective, Personal Bibliography," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 13/1 (2004): 38–49. off-site wiki
  10. Jesse A. Washburn and Jesse N. Washburn, From Babel to Cumorah (Provo, UT: New Era Publishing, 1937).
  11. Thomas S. Ferguson, Cumorah—Where? (Independence, MO: Press of Zion's Print. & Publishing Company, 1947).
  12. 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 wiki
  13. 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.
  14. See, for example, John E. Clark, "Archaeology and Cumorah Questions," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 13/1 (2004): 144–151. off-site 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 [1985]),14–16.
  15. Dallin H. Oaks, "Historicity of the Book of Mormon," Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies Annual Dinner Provo, Utah, 29 October 1993; cited in Dallin H. Oaks, "The Historicity of the Book of Mormon," (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1994), 2-3. Reproduced in Dallin H. Oaks, "The Historicity of the Book of Mormon," in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 237–48.
  16. David A. Palmer, In Search of Cumorah: New Evidences for the Book of Mormon from Ancient Mexico (Bountiful: Horizon, 1981), 28–72.
  17. See Andrew H. Hedges, Cumorah and the Limited Mesoamerican Theory off-site and see also Edwin Goble, Resurrecting Cumorah, Second Revised Edition, May 2011.
  18. Rex C. Reeve, Jr., and Richard O. Cowan, "The Hill Called Cumorah," in Larry C. Porter, Milton V. Backman, Jr., and Susan Easton Black, eds., Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint History: New York and Pennsylvania (Provo: BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1992), 73–74.
  19. David Whitmer interview with Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt; version recorded in Joseph F. Smith, Diary, 7-8 September 1878, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 5:41–49.
  20. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 324.