Question: Is there a revealed Book of Mormon geography?

FairMormon Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: Is there a revealed Book of Mormon geography?

Church leaders have been clear that there is no revealed geography for the Book of Mormon

  • It is claimed that the Church has officially endorsed a "hemispheric" geography of the Book of Mormon.
  • It is claimed that leaders of the Church long ago made one view of Book of Mormon geography "official."
  • It is claimed that Church members are encouraged by their leaders not to try to determine where the Book of Mormon occurred.
  • Joseph Smith associated the Mayan city of Palenque with Book of Mormon civilizations.
  • It is claimed that Joseph Smith knew exactly where the Book of Mormon occurred.

Church leaders have been clear that there is no revealed geography for the Book of Mormon, save that it took place somewhere in the western (i.e., American) hemisphere.

May 25, 1903: President Joseph F. Smith says location of Zarahemla not of vital importance

On May 25, 1903 President Joseph F. Smith attended a convention on the Book of Mormon at BYU Academy in Provo, Utah. After several individuals and expressed and presented their views on the subject, “President Smith spoke briefly and expressed the idea that the question of the situation of the city [of Zarahemla] was one of interest certainly, but if it could not be located the matter was not of vital importance, and if there were differences of opinion on he question it would not affect the salvation of the people: and he advised against students considering it of such vital importance as the principles of the Gospel . . . . [He] again cautioned the students against making the union question–the location of the cities and lands–of the equal importance with the doctrines contained in the book . . . . [President Anthony H. Lund] advised those present to study the Book of Mormon, and be guided by the advice of President Smith in their studies.[1]

1910s

Around 1918, President Joseph F. Smith:

The present associate editor of The Instructor was one day in the office of the late President Joseph F. Smith when some brethren were asking him to approve a map showing the exact landing place of Lehi and his company. President Smith declined to officially approve of the map, saying that the Lord had not yet revealed it, and that if it were officially approved and afterwards found to be in error, it would affect the faith of the people.[2]

April 1929: Anthony W. Ivins (First Presidency), General Conference

We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon teaches the history of three distinct peoples, or two peoples and three different colonies of people, who came from the old world to this continent. It does not tell us that there was no one here before them. It does not tell us that people did not come after. And so if discoveries are made which suggest differences in race origins, it can very easily be accounted for, and reasonably, for we do believe that other people came to this continent...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.[3]

April 1929: James E. Talmage, General Conference

I sometimes think we pay a little undue attention to technicalities, and to questions that cannot be fully answered with respect to the Book of Mormon. It matters not to me just where this city or that camp was located. I have met a few of our Book of Mormon students who claim to be able to put their finger upon the map and indicate every land and city mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The fact is, the Book of Mormon does not give us precise and definite information whereby we can locate those places with certainty. I encourage and recommend all possible investigation, comparison and research in this matter. The more thinkers, investigators, workers we have in the field the better; but our brethren who devote themselves to that kind of research should remember that they must speak with caution and not declare as demonstrated truths points that are not really proved. There is enough truth in the Book of Mormon to occupy you and me for the rest of our lives, without giving too much time and attention to these debatable matters.[4]

1954: Mark E. Peterson (Council of the Twelve)

…we all have our free agency. God doesn’t rob anyone of that. And sometimes even a General Authority has used his agency in a wrong direction…Now, a General Authority might speculate, I suppose. We have had speculation, for instance, on the part of some with respect to Book of Mormon geography, and it is plain, unadulterated speculation and not doctrine. And if a General Authority has speculated on Book of Mormon geography he did not represent the view of the Church while doing so.[5]

1950s: Dallin H. Oaks (Council of the Twelve)

Here [BYU, 1950s] 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 [i.e. those who argue that the Book of Mormon is not a literally true record, as it claims] 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. You do not prevail on that proposition by proving that a particular Eskimo culture represents migrations from Asia. The opponents of the historicity of the Book of Mormon must prove that the people whose religious life it records did not live anywhere in the Americas.[6]

1947-1950: John A. Widtsoe (Council of the Twelve)

As far as can be learned, the Prophet Joseph Smith, translator of the book, did not say where, on the American continent, Book of Mormon activities occurred. Perhaps he did not know…. [The 1842 Times and Seasons article] seems to place many book of Mormon activities in that region. The interesting fact in this connection is that the Prophet Joseph Smith at this time was editor of the Times and Seasons, and had announced his full editorial responsibility for the paper. This seems to give the subjoined article an authority it might not otherwise possess….

They who work on the geography of the Book of Mormon have little else than the preceding approaches with which to work, viz [that is]: that Nephites found their way into what is now the state of Illinois; that the plates of the Book of Mormon were found in a hill in northwestern New York State; that a statement exists of doubtful authenticity that Lehi and his party landed on the shore of the land now known as Chile; and that under the Prophet's editorship Central America was denominated the region of Book of Mormon activities.

Out of diligent, prayerful study, we may be led to a better understanding of times and places in the history of the people who move across the pages of the divinely given Book of Mormon.[7]

…out of the studies of faithful Latter-day Saints may yet come a unity of opinion concerning Book of Mormon geography.[8]

1966: Harold B. Lee

Some say the Hill Cumorah was in southern Mexico (and someone pushed it down still farther) and not in western New York. Well, if the Lord wanted us to know where it was, or where Zarahemla was, he’d have given us latitude and longitude, don’t you think? And why bother our heads trying to discover with archaeological certainty the geographical locations of the cities of the Book of Mormon like Zarahemla?[9]

1968: Paul R. Cheesman, in a November 1968 article for The Instructor magazine

There are those who believe that there are two Hill Cumorahs. Their theory is that the hill on which Mormon fought the last battle with the Lamanites is not the same hill in which Joseph Smith found the gold plates. Advocates of this theory establish their analysis primarily from the internal evidences of the Book of Mormon. Others conclude that there is only one Hill Cumorah, and that the place where Joseph Smith and Moroni met was the same place Mormon and Moroni visited in the fifth century. There is no official Church view.[10]

1989: Elder Neal A. Maxwell

Individuals and settings of obscurity are not unusual to the Lord's purposes. Meridian–day Christianity was initiated on a very small geographical scale and with comparatively few people. The larger, busy world paid little heed to it. Likewise with the Book of Mormon peoples. Whether located in Meso–America or elsewhere, they were one people among many peoples on this planet and perhaps even on the western hemisphere.[11]

1992: Encyclopedia of Mormonism

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.[12]

Landing Party in Chile?

It is claimed that an uncanonized revelation by Joseph Smith sets the landing party for Lehi in Chile.[13] The source for this assertion is a "small book called A Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel, published in 1884 by Elders Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, contains a statement as follows:

LEHI’S TRAVELS.—Revelation to Joseph the Seer.
The course that Lehi and his company traveled from Jerusalem to the place of their destination:
They traveled nearly a south, southeast direction until they came to the nineteenth degree of north latitude; then, nearly east to the Sea of Arabia, then sailed in a southeast direction, and landed on the continent of South America, in Chile, thirty degrees south latitude.[14]

No source is given for this information, beyond the introductory statement that it was a revelation to Joseph the Seer, which of course means Joseph Smith. An intriguing problem for historians is where this statement came from and whether, indeed, it can really be traced to Joseph Smith."[15]

"There is no solid historical evidence, however, attributing this statement to Joseph, let alone to revelation, and the assumption that such information was received by revelation is inconsistent with other evidence. An editorial in Times and Seasons gives another landing site for Lehi’s party: 'Lehi . . . landed a little south of the Isthmus of Darien,'[16] or modern Panama. If Joseph had received a revelation concerning Lehi’s landing only a few years earlier (or if he knew of someone else’s receiving such a revelation), it is unlikely that he would have allowed this contradictory statement to be published. Given the variety and sparsity of statements about Book of Mormon geography during Joseph’s lifetime, it seems that, at least in his mind, the location of Lehi’s landing remained indefinite.

The Williams handwritten document is the prime source of information about its own origin. His statement about Lehi’s travels is found at the bottom of that sheet. The three items above it are separated by lines drawn across the page. Together, they give a possible context to the statement about Lehi’s travels. The first item on the sheet, known today as Doctrine and Covenants 7, is a revelation given to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery regarding John the Beloved. It was received in 1829 and published in 1833. The second item is entitled “Questions in English, Answers in Hebrew.” It quotes from Jacob 5:13 (“For it grieveth me that I should loose [sic] this tree and the fruit thereof”) and 7:27 (“Brethren, I bid you adieu”), and then below each statement gives “An[swers],” translating the English into rough Hebrew. The third item, headed “characters on the book of Mormon” and “the interpretion of Languages,” gives two characters under each. The statement about Lehi’s travels is then the fourth item on the sheet.

It appears likely that these statements were part of what was being studied at the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, since the first three deal with translation. This idea is corroborated by another known document, virtually identical to the second and third items on the Williams paper, with the signature 'written and kept for profit and learning—by Oliver.' The Cowdery paper, like the Williams document, appears to contain notes, written only for 'profit and learning' as these men studied together in the School of the Prophets, sometimes held in the Kirtland Temple.

On the back of the Williams paper are other characters and a statement written by Ezra G. Williams, Frederick’s son. It reads: 'G. S. L. City, April 11, 1864. This paper is in the hand writing of my father, Fred G. Williams. The characters thereon I believe to be a representation of those shown to him at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.' This statement discloses several important facts: (1) While Ezra knows that the page is in his father’s handwriting, (2) he only believes the characters had something to do with the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. (3) Nothing ties Ezra’s statement on the back to any of the four items on the front (indeed, it makes no sense to link Doctrine and Covenants 7 from 1829 to the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in 1836). Furthermore, Ezra does not attribute the statement about Lehi’s travels (4) to Joseph or (5) to revelation.

It is easy to understand, however, how the context of the statement on Lehi’s travels could have been misunderstood. The error can possibly be traced innocently to the partial copy, made in 1845, of Joseph Smith’s inspired translation of the Bible. John M. Bernhisel wrote the same statement on the last sheet of his copy, preceded by several blank pages. The isolated statement is given no context, heading, or comment, and it is not attributed to Joseph or anyone else. The mere fact that it was copied at the back of the Joseph Smith Translation, however, may have led people to assume that the Lehi statement was also an inspired statement by Joseph Smith. Bernhisel’s source, however, appears to be the Williams document, since Bernhisel’s copy has the identical wording and nearly the same spelling, capitalization, and punctuation as the Williams copy, with both misspelling the word 'lattitude.'

As early as 1909, B. H. Roberts doubted that the statement about Lehi’s travels came from Joseph Smith. Even before that, George Q. Cannon, First Counselor in the First Presidency, issued a statement in the Juvenile Instructor urging students of Book of Mormon geography to avoid contention and confusion, and to exercise caution in 'drawing all the information possible from the record which has been translated for our benefit.'[17] If we had certain knowledge from a revelation of Book of Mormon geography, including Lehi’s landing site, there would be neither speculation nor the need for such a caution. As it is, there is both."[18]


Hill Cumorah in New York?

It is claimed that there is revelation that places the Hill Cumorah described in the Book of Mormon in New York. That has been responded to elsewhere on the wiki.

Lamanites in Ohio?

A few revelations given to the Prophet Joseph Smith place the location of Lamanites within the United States.[19] It is claimed that these place the narrative of the Book of Mormon within the United States only. These revelations do not limit the main events of the Book of Mormon from taking place further south as has been demonstrated by the Hinterland models created by Mark Wright and other Mesoamerican theorists.[20]

Notes

  1. Deseret News, 25 May 1903.
  2. George D. Pyper, "The Book of Mormon Geography," The Instructor no. 73 (April 1938), 160. Event discussed occurred in about 1918; see John L. Sorenson, Mormon's Map (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 7. ISBN 0934893489.
  3. Anthony W. Ivins, Conference Report (April 1929), 16.
  4. James E. Talmage, Conference Report (April 1929), 44.
  5. Mark E. Petersen, “Revelation,” address to religious educators, 24 August 1954; cited in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd ed., (Salt Lake City: Church Educational System and the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints, 1982), 136–137; cited in Dennis B. Horne (ed.), Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluation Doctrinal Truth (Roy, Utah: Eborn Books, 2005), 315.
  6. 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.
  7. John A. Widtsoe, "Evidences and Reconciliations: Is Book of Mormon Geography Known?," Improvement Era 53 (July 1950), 547.
  8. John A. Widtsoe, foreword to Thomas S. Ferguson, Cumorah—Where? (Independence, MO: Press of Zion's Print. & Publishing Company, 1947). Cited by John L. Sorenson, Mormon's Map (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 7–8. ISBN 0934893489.
  9. Harold B. Lee, “Loyalty,” address to religious educators, 8 July 1966; in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Church Educational System and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982), 65; cited in Dennis B. Horne (ed.), Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluation Doctrinal Truth (Roy, Utah: Eborn Books, 2005), 172-173.
  10. Paul R. Cheesman, "Archaeology and the Book of Mormon," The Instructor, Vol. 103, No. 11 (November 1968): 429.
  11. Neal A. Maxwell, But For A Small Moment (Salt Lake City, Utah: Desert Book, 1986), 18.
  12. David A. Palmer, "Cumorah," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, (New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 1:346-347.
  13. Brent Metcalfe and Dan Vogel, "Editor's Introduction," American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), viii.
  14. The Compendium was first published by Richards and Little in Liverpool, England in 1857. However, the “Lehi” statement was not included in the first edition. A second edition, revised and enlarged, was published in Salt Lake City by George Q. Cannon and Sons Company in 1884, and it is from this edition that the statement is found on page 289.
  15. Robert J. Matthews, "Notes on 'Lehi's Travels'," BYU Studies 13:3 (Spring 1973): 312-14.
  16. Times and Seasons 3 (15 September 1842): 922. One may contend that Chile is "a little south of the Isthmus of Darien" but that ignores the specific coordinates ("30 degrees...") Joseph gave which do not match with the statement made in this supposed "revelation."
  17. George Q. Cannon, “The Book of Mormon Geography,” Juvenile Instructor 25 (January 1, 1890): 19.
  18. John W. Welch, "Did Lehi Land in Chile?" Reexploring the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), 57-61.
  19. See for instance Doctrine and Covenants 28: 8, 9, 14. For information on Zelph see our wiki page on this.
  20. See Mark Alan Wright, "Heartland as Hinterland: The Mesoamerican Core and North American Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 13 (2015): 111-129.