Question: How should a valid Book of Mormon geography be modeled?

Table of Contents

Question: How should a valid Book of Mormon geography be modeled?

Building a model

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. 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:

  1. Relative distances
  2. The Hill Cumorah
  3. Ten essential features of geography
  4. Cultural features

Distances

Figure 1:Book of Mormon geography with approximate distances as determined by the text.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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

  1. incredibly consistent internally, while
  2. not a match at all for the expectations of Joseph and his fellow 19th century readers?
Figure 2: Plausible relative internal geography


Notes

  1. 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 [1985]),8–12.; 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.)
  2. 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]), 9.
  3. 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]),8–22. See a more recent discussion by Sorenson in John L. Sorenson, Mormon's Map (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 55–81. ISBN 0934893489.