Book of Mormon/Geography/New World/Limited Geography Theory/What is it

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What is the Book of Mormon Limited Geography Theory?

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Question: What is the Limited Geography Theory and model?

The Limited Geography Model is based upon an accurate reading the Book of Mormon text and limits geography to several hundred miles

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.[1] 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.

Advantages of this model:

  • a limited model seems to match the textual information about distance with much greater accuracy
  • a limited model offers a more realistic fit for an ancient society, which would have had great difficulties travelling or communicating over the vast distances required by the Hemispheric Geography Theory
  • a limited model potentially restricts Book of Mormon peoples to an area which matches regions (e.g., such as Mesoamerica) known to have had high culture, city-building, written language, etc.

Disadvantages include:

  • many Church members are unfamiliar with the basis for this model, having not paid close attention to issues of distance and travel times, since they have been more focused on the spiritual details of the Book of Mormon instead of its mundane details.
  • most early members and leaders of the Church have, when they made geography explicit at all, tended to adopt a hemispheric model
  • being a "newer" model, some claim that advocates of the LGT are 'changing the Church's story' about the Book of Mormon, even though the Church has been clear that it had no official or revealed Book of Mormon geography.
  • placing the model exactly becomes more difficult, since a smaller geography can 'fit' more than one potential location.
  • critics of the theory maintain that it uses mental gymnastics to explain away the mention of an "exceedingly great distance" in the text. Traditionally, it had been believed that there was an exceedingly great distance between the core of the Nephite domain and the Hill Cumorah in the area where the Nephites and Jaredites were destroyed.

Question: Has the Church ever promoted a Limited Geography model for the Book of Mormon?

The Church produced materials showing a limited geography for the Book of Mormon in the 1970s and 1980s

Three frames from the Church-produced filmstrip "Ancient America Speaks." This filmstrip was used by missionaries in the late 1970s and early 80s. It clearly showed a Limited Geography for Book of Mormon lands with the "narrow neck" being the Isthmus of Panama.

Has the Church ever promoted a Limited Geography model for the Book of Mormon? The answer to that question is yes. The Church filmstrip "Ancient America Speaks" was heavily used by missionaries in the 1970s. It included a map which indicated that Nephite and Lamanite lands were distinct and separated by the Isthmus of Panama.

In September and October of 1984, the official Church magazine the Ensign printed a two-part series which outlined the limited geography model for the Book of Mormon. The articles were called "Digging into the Book of Mormon: Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and Its Scripture" and were written by Latter-day Saint anthropologist John L. Sorenson. Sorenson notes:

Many Latter-day Saints have not had access to sources which communicate how recent research has changed our understanding of the Book of Mormon as an ancient document. Many also are unaware of some rather surprising new discoveries supporting the Book of Mormon which have been brought about by the advanced methods of science. The purpose of this article and the one to follow is to sketch a few vivid examples of changes in how some Latter-day Saint scholars view the Book of Mormon in the light of new theories and discoveries about the past. These articles are not intended to be an expression of official Church teachings, but on the basis of my own research and study, I have thought this new information to be worth consideration. [2]

Question: Why have Church leaders taught a hemispheric geography for the Book of Mormon rather than a limited one?

"Traditional" interpretations of the Book of Mormon assume a hemispheric geography

Latter-day Saint anthropologist John L. Sorenson specifically notes that there is a difference between the "traditional" interpretation of the Book of Mormon versus what it actually says,

One problem some Latter-day Saint writers and lecturers have had is confusing the actual text of the Book of Mormon with the traditional interpretation of it. For example, a commonly heard statement is that the Book of Mormon is “the history of the American Indians.” This statement contains a number of unexamined assumptions—that the scripture is a history in the common sense—a systematic, chronological account of the main events in the past of a nation or territory; that “the” American Indians are a unitary population; and that the approximately one hundred pages of text containing historical and cultural material in the scripture could conceivably tell the entire history of a hemisphere. When unexamined assumptions like these are made, critics respond in kind, criticizing not the ancient text itself, but the assumptions we have made about it. [2]

Sorenson notes that critics make the same assumptions about traditional interpretations as Latter-day saints,

Among the criticisms of the Book of Mormon by archaeologists, the two most widely circulated statements (the late Robert Wauchope’s book and Michael Coe’s article nearly a decade ago) suffer from similar limitations. Both of these eminent scholars based their reactions to the Book of Mormon on the same unfortunate assumption that the Book of Mormon account is about events involving American Indians throughout the entire New World. Their conclusions were as flawed as those arrived at by some Latter-day Saints. [2]

Question: Did Joseph Smith teach a hemispheric, rather than a limited, geography model for the Book of Mormon?

It does not appear that the Angel Moroni identified the locations of places mentioned in the Book of Mormon

What did Joseph Smith believe and teach about Book of Mormon geography? How does it relate to the location where the plates were buried? Matthew Roper addresses this issue:

The Prophet Joseph Smith knew that the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated had been obtained from the hill near his home. Aside from this, however, it does not appear that the angel Moroni identified current locations for places mentioned in the book. It is noteworthy—but scarcely surprising—that the Book of Mormon itself does not identify the hill in which it was buried. Instead, the hill in which all the Nephite plates other than those of the Book of Mormon were buried is identified (Mormon 6:6).26 It is also unclear how much, if any, geography Moroni revealed to the Prophet—whose calling was that of translator, not geographer. In the absence of revelation on Book of Mormon geography, we must expect the Saints to express their own ideas. Revelation is one thing, while speculation is quite another. Joseph Smith said very little about the geography of the Book of Mormon. What little he did say suggests that he may have shared the view held by his associates, that the Book of Mormon narrative describes events occurring in North, Central, and South America. [3]

Latter-day Saint archaeologist John Clark "points out the dangers of uncritically accepting the opinions of Joseph Smith as authoritative on the issue of Book of Mormon geography." [4]

The dangerous area is where opinion is thought to clarify ambiguities in the text, of which there are many. The minimal fact that various statements are attributed to Joseph Smith that place cities in different lands suggests that he continued to be interested throughout [Page 80]his life in the location of Book of Mormon lands and, consequently, that it remained an open question for him. If he knew where they were, why did he continue guessing? Should we not be similarly open-minded today? Do we go with the Prophet’s early statements or his later statements? [5]

Joseph occasionally expressed ideas related to where the Book of Mormon occurred, which ranged from the area around New York to the lands of Central America

Joseph occasionally expressed ideas related to where the Book of Mormon occurred, which ranged from the area around New York to the lands of Central America. He never explicitly taught a specific geography, although he appears to have held a hemispheric view, just as many members today do. Joseph was as much an observer of the restoration as he was its principle player. When revelations were received, he had to use his physical faculties to interpret and understand them like the rest of us. And although he had a "front row seat" to many of the foundational events, he was often as astounded and surprised by the revelations he received as were those who received them from him, and he had to understand those things that were evidenced but not explicitly stated by revelation in the same way we all do. This includes of course the geographic setting for the Book of Mormon. A limited geography does not in any way contradict the revelations of Joseph Smith.

Roper: "Critics of the Book of Mormon have claimed that the limited geography is only a late, desperate attempt to defend the Book of Mormon"

Matthew Roper:

Recently, some critics of the Book of Mormon have claimed that the limited geography is only a late, desperate attempt to defend the Book of Mormon. It is, they assert, contrary "to the Book of Mormon text, early Mormon history, [and] Joseph Smith's divine edicts."2 In order to place the assertions of these critics in perspective, it is necessary to address several questions: What was the hemispheric geography based on? Granted that this early view was popular, was it based on revelation? Is there any authoritative interpretation of Book of Mormon geography? Is the localized geography some kind of debater's ploy or are there substantial reasons for this view? [6] —(Click here to continue)

Question: Was the Limited Geography model created in response to DNA claims?

The Limited Geography Model was introduced in 1927, many years before DNA claims

Was the Limited Geography model created in respond to DNA claims? The answer is no. The idea that Lehi's party entered a larger, pre-existing New World population was introduced as early as 1927, well before the Book of Mormon was being challenged on issues related to DNA. [7]

An examination of both Part 1 and Part 2 of Sorenson's 1984 Ensign articles quickly shows that they do not even contain the term "DNA". The articles focus on anthropological and geographical topics which support the Limited Geography model.

I have said repeatedly that the correspondences in geography, history, and cultural patterns—large scale or micro-scale—between Mesoamerican cultures and the Book of Mormon peoples do not “prove” anything conclusively. Still, the fact that large numbers of such correspondences exist ought to register in the minds of truth-loving people. With this in mind, it is clearly misleading for a scholar—one of our own—to imply that there is no “important archaeological evidence” to support the Book of Mormon story “of Indian origins,” or for another to find it amusing to think that anyone would seriously try to compare the Book of Mormon with objective facts of historical importance. [8]

The Sorenson map of Book of Mormon lands as it appeared in the September 1984 church magazine, the Ensign. This map may be viewed on the official Church website

The Church does not take an official position on this issue

This is one of many issues about which the Church has no official position. As President J. Reuben Clark taught under assignment from the First Presidency:

Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church....
When any man, except the President of the Church, undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church, we may know that he is not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President.
Of these things we may have a confident assurance without chance for doubt or quibbling.[9]

Harold B. Lee was emphatic that only one person can speak for the Church:

All over the Church you're being asked this: "What does the Church think about this or that?" Have you ever heard anybody ask that question? "What does the Church think about the civil rights legislation?" "What do they think about the war?" "What do they think about drinking Coca-Cola or Sanka coffee?" Did you ever hear that? "What do they think about the Democratic Party or ticket or the Republican ticket?" Did you ever hear that? "How should we vote in this forthcoming election?" Now, with most all of those questions, if you answer them, you're going to be in trouble. Most all of them. Now, it's the smart man that will say, "There's only one man in this church that speaks for the Church, and I'm not that one man."
I think nothing could get you into deep water quicker than to answer people on these things, when they say, "What does the Church think?" and you want to be smart, so you try to answer what the Church's policy is. Well, you're not the one to make the policies for the Church. You just remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well now, as teachers of our youth, you're not supposed to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. On that subject you're expected to be an expert. You're expected to know your subject. You're expected to have a testimony. And in that you'll have great strength. If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn't go shopping for the answer.[10]

This was recently reiterated by the First Presidency (who now approves all statements published on the Church's official website):

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency...and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.[11]

In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:

Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility.[12]

Other Wiki Pages

Details: To see specific limited geography models, click here.

Table of Contents

Book of Mormon geography models in table form:

By Author

Book of Mormon geography models sorted by name

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LDS models

RLDS models

Critics' models

Miscellaneous models

By Date

All models by date of authorship

By Scope

Hemispheric Geography Models

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Limited Geography Models

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By Type

External (real world) models

Internal Geography Models

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  1. For the history of the LGT, see Matthew Roper, "Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations," FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 225–276. off-site
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 John L. Sorenson, "Digging into the Book of Mormon: Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and Its Scripture" (Part 1), Ensign (September 1984) off-site
  3. Matthew Roper, "Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations," The FARMS Review 16/2 (2004)
  4. Neal Rappleye, "“War of Words and Tumult of Opinions”: The Battle for Joseph Smith’s Words in Book of Mormon Geography," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014)79. off-site
  5. John E. Clark, “Evaluating the Case for a Limited Great Lakes Setting,” FARMS Review of Books 14/1–2 (2002): 28.
  6. Matthew Roper, "Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations," FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 225–276. off-site
  7. Janne M Sjodahl, An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon, Deseret News Press (1927)
  8. John L. Sorenson, "Digging into the Book of Mormon: Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and Its Scripture, Part 2", Ensign (October 1984) off-site
  9. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., "Church Leaders and the Scriptures," [original title "When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?"] Immortality and Eternal Life: Reflections from the Writings and Messages of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Vol, 2, (1969-70): 221; address to Seminary and Institute Teachers, BYU (7 July 1954); reproduced in Church News (31 July 1954); also reprinted in Dialogue 12/2 (Summer 1979): 68–81.
  10. Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445.
  11. LDS Newsroom, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," (4 May 2007)
  12. Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).