Section 3: Joseph Smith
What Joseph Smith knew or understood about the [B]ook [of Mormon] ought to be research questions rather than presumptions.1
—John. E. Clark
Editor’s Note: This paper is the executive summary version of the full paper available in both HTML format and PDF format. Make sure you visit the index for the reviews. This paper was last updated 3 September 2008.
What Joseph Smith knew or understood about the [B]ook [of Mormon] ought to be research questions rather than presumptions.1
—John. E. Clark
This document is an analysis of the scholarly merits of the evidence and research used by Rodney Meldrum2 in his firesides and DVD presentation, DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography.3 Neither FAIR nor this document take any position on the geographic location of Book of Mormon events.4 It is important, however, that Meldrum’s theories be analyzed according to the same standards by which other Book of Mormon geography theories are evaluated. To avoid confusion, this paper refers to Meldrum’s geographic model as the Limited North American Model, or LNAM.5 This document is just one in a series of such analytical documents.
In this document we examine the use to which Meldrum puts the statements of Joseph Smith. This examination addresses, specifically, Part 3 of the DVD presentation, which is entitled “Joseph Smith: What did Joseph Know about Book of Mormon Geography?” It is a fair summarization of the presentation to say that it claims Joseph Smith not only taught that the Book of Mormon happened in a specific location, but that this was based upon revelation to Joseph Smith.
Unfortunately, the historical record is not as clear as the presentation makes it appear. Several pieces of evidence are relied upon to establish a position that Joseph Smith knew the geography of the Book of Mormon. These are the items, in the order they are used in the presentation:
- The Wentworth letter
- The American Revivalist account
- Lucy Mack Smith’s statement
- Letter to Emma Smith
- The Zelph mound incident
This paper examines each of these evidentiary items, in turn, and then analyzes information not covered in the presentation.
The Wentworth Letter
The presentation relies heavily upon the supposed geographic references within the Wentworth letter.6 The key portions stressed in the presentation are the references to “this continent” and “this country.” The presentation insists that both are evidence that Joseph situated the geography of the Book of Mormon within North America, since that is where he was living when the statement was made.
Such an assertion is based on a common logical fallacy called presentism. This means that the researcher or author reads into the historical record a modern understanding of a term or phrase. Granted, today we commonly refer to North America as a continent, but the more important question is how the people of Joseph’s day understood the term.
A quick check shows that Webster’s dictionary, 1828 edition, defines continent as “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.”7 Webster refers to both the Eastern and Western continents, usage consistent with the Wentworth letter (not fully quoted in the presentation) in which Joseph contrasts the events of “this continent” with the events of the “eastern continent.”8
In Joseph’s day, in other words, “this continent” didn’t refer solely to North America. The term “continent,” as used by Joseph and his contemporaries, is synonymous with our usage of “hemisphere” today.
The presentation also asserts that because the Wentworth letter uses the term “this country” that means that Joseph is situating the Book of Mormon in “the United States.”9 While the word “country” can refer to a kingdom or nation, in Joseph’s day it could also refer to “any tract of land, or inhabited land; any region, as distinguished from other regions.”10 It is possible that Joseph is using the term generically rather than specifically.
Even if we grant that it refers to a nation, it does little to help situate the Book of Mormon. The letter says only that “the remnant” of the Nephites and Lamanites “now inhabit this country.” This would be true wherever the Book of Mormon took place, since if Lehi left any descendants at all, all Amerindians would share a relation to the remnant he left behind by Joseph Smith’s day, fifteen hundred years later.11
Further, equating “country” with “nation” doesn’t take into account presentism. When Joseph made his statement, the country was much smaller than today. So, to which “country” would Joseph have been referring? That country with which he and Wentworth were familiar or the larger country to which Meldrum applies Joseph’s words?
The American Revivalist Account
As a “second witness”12 for Joseph’s understanding of Book of Mormon geography, the presentation uses a statement that appeared in early 1833 in The American Revivalist and Rochester Observer. Here are the words used in the presentation:
The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western tribes of Indians… By it, we learn that our western tribes of Indians, are descendants from that Joseph that was sold into Egypt, and that the land of America is a promised land unto them.13
Since Joseph was living in Kirtland at the time, the presentation uses the statement as support for placing the Nephites in areas east of the Mississippi River and the Lamanites at all points between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. After all, we assume that the “western tribes of Indians” could only apply to Native Americans in that area.
Is such an analysis correct? There is ambiguity in the statement, as there were hundreds of tribes living west of Kirtland in 1833, but Joseph makes no definition as to which of those tribes he refers to.14 Does such a statement, early in 1833, indicate that Joseph believed at the time that the Book of Mormon geography was situated in Western America, or do we learn that Joseph believed that the Native Americans in that area were descendants of Book of Mormon peoples? The latter reading is just as likely as the former, focusing on genealogy, birthright, and blessings rather than on geography.
Lucy Mack Smith’s Statement
The next piece of evidence marshaled in support of the LNAM is a statement by Lucy Mack Smith, mother of Joseph Smith, talking about how Joseph would “describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent”15 in great detail to the amazement of the family.
Meldrum reads this passage with just as much presentism as he read the evidence presented earlier. Lucy states that Joseph talked about the “inhabitants of this continent,” which in contemporary usage included more than just North America. And, unless Joseph was shown a map that indicated where the events he was seeing took place, “this continent” is a very indeterminate location—it is just as plausible that they took place in South America or Central America as in North America.
Letter to Emma Smith
The next piece of evidence used in the presentation to suggest that Joseph revealed a North American setting for the Book of Mormon is a letter he wrote to Emma on June 4, 1834, while on the Zion’s Camp march. Joseph discussed their journey “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 proof of its divine authenticity.”16
This is, obviously, an important clue about Joseph’s views on geography at the time. However, it is unclear if Joseph meant such statements to be definitive, geographically, for the placement of Book of Mormon events. This statement was not consistent with earlier statements (it was more limited in nature than earlier statements which alluded to an entire hemisphere) or later statements (which referenced Nephites in Central America).
The easiest way to account for the differing statements by Joseph over time is to simply acknowledge that his feelings relative to Book of Mormon geography changed over time—as in most things, Joseph was open to further knowledge. (See the discussion of the Bernhisel letter later in this paper.)
The Zelph Mound Incident
During the Zion’s Camp march Joseph and others stumbled across a mound with stone altars on top of it. They dug down and found a human skeleton with an arrow in the ribcage. The History of the Church combined several diary entries and accounts about the incident and then wrote the story as if Joseph was speaking.17 These are not his words, but an amalgamation of several accounts into one:
The contemplation of the scenery around us produced peculiar sensations in our bosoms: and subsequently the visions of the past being opened to my [Joseph Smith’s] understanding by the Spirit of the Almighty, I discovered that 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. He was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea to the Rocky mountains. The curse was taken from Zelph, or, at least, in part—one of his thigh bones was broken by a stone flung from a sling, while in battle, years before his death. He was killed in battle by the arrow found among his ribs, during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites.18
LDS scholars have long noted several problems with this story. The accounts were published after the death of Joseph Smith, and the text has a convoluted history.19 Even if we presume that the History of the Church account is completely accurate—a dubious assumption—this does little to help us with Book of Mormon geography. The Book of Mormon speaks of several migrations of people “northward”20 totaling thousands and thousands of people.
If one wishes to entertain a Mesoamerican geography, it is also interesting to note a diffusion of Mesoamerican artifacts, buildings, and beliefs “northward” of Mesoamerica.21 This is not to advocate a Mesoamerican geography, but to point out that finding Nephite or Lamanite remnants north of Mesoamerica does nothing to help us decide between a North American or Mesoamerican model—both allow for Lehites further north. Zelph could very well have been a descendant of Lehi and served under the Prophet Ondandugus, if we remember to keep all the northward migrations in mind.
Elder John A. Widtsoe gave advice that those positing a North American model would do well to consider: “This [Zelph] is not of much value in Book of Mormon geographical studies, since Zelph probably dated from a later time when Nephites and Lamanites had been somewhat dispersed and had wandered over the country.”22
Other Geographic Views
From available information, there was very little unity of thought among early Church leaders relative to Book of Mormon geography. In November 1830 some of the first missionaries sent out to preach to the world, having been taught by Joseph Smith himself, discussed the landing site of Lehi’s party. A reporter was at this meeting and recorded that the missionaries indicated Lehites “landed on the coast of Chili [sic] 600 years before the coming of Christ.”23
Another article printed two years later provides a few more details of what was being taught by missionaries at that time. It mentions Lehi and his party landing in South America, but also says that the Nephite final battles were “fought nigh to the straits of Darien [i.e., in Panama], and the last at a hill called Comoro.”24 Fredrick G. Williams also recorded similar remarks, stating that Lehi “sailed in a south east direction and landed on the continent of South America in Chile” at thirty degrees south latitude.25
References to Mesoamerica as the location for Book of Mormon events start to appear as early as 1832. In the Church publication The Evening and Morning Star, in an article titled “Discovery of Ancient Ruins in Central America,” there is a reprint of a story describing Guatemalan ruins that is offered as “good testimony in favor of the book of Mormon.”26
In 1842 an article in the Times and Seasons stated that “Lehi went down by the Red Sea to the great Southern Ocean, and crossed over to this land and landed a little south of the Isthmus of Darien, and improved the country according to the word of the Lord.”27 The reference shows that at the time at least one or two leaders of the Church entertained a geography that wasn’t limited to North America.
Other articles were also published in Church periodicals supporting a Central American location. Parley P. Pratt wrote of “ruins in Central America” providing Book of Mormon evidence in the Millennial Star.28 Other early Church leaders, as seen in the next section, were equally outspoken on the issue.
None of these leaders—contemporary with Joseph Smith—understood a geography consistent with a LNAM. Other contemporaries like Wilford Woodruff and Orson Pratt were happy to entertain geographic theories outside of a LNAM.29 Woodruff and Pratt both heard Joseph talk about Zelph, yet they obviously didn’t consider his remarks to be binding revelation about geography for Book of Mormon events.
The Bernhisel Letter
John Bernhisel joined the LDS Church in 1837 in New York City. Bernhisel was a well-educated man, and in 1841 read Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan by John L. Stephens. Impressed by the book, Bernhisel gave the two-volume work to Wilford Woodruff in September 1841 with instructions to make sure it was given to Joseph Smith. Woodruff, who was on his way back from England to Nauvoo, delivered the book, as requested.
It would appear that Joseph appreciated receiving the book, as he wrote a letter to Bernhisel acknowledging the gift. Dated November 16, 1841, the first paragraph of the letter is as follows:30
I received your kind present by the hand of Er Woodruff & feel myself under many obligations for this mark of your esteem & friendship which to me is the more interesting as it unfolds & developes many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon; I have read the volumes with the greatest interest & pleasure & must say that of all histories that have been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country it is the most correct luminous & comprihensive.31
The Bernhisel letter presents a difficult challenge to anyone trying to place Book of Mormon events in North America. Meldrum knows that he needs to deal with the letter, as it is written by Joseph Smith and directly contradicts the LNAM. In effect, the Bernhisel letter becomes “the elephant in the room” that cannot be ignored.
How is he going to get the elephant out of the room with no one noticing? When Meldrum takes on the Bernhisel letter he—consciously or subconsciously—engages in a stratagem that magicians sometimes call “the naked lady gambit.”32 Simply put, if you want to make an elephant disappear, first you bring out the naked lady. While all eyes are fixed on the lady, the elephant is slipped quietly off stage, with the audience none the wiser.
A full exposition of how this gambit is used in the presentation is beyond the scope of this executive summary. In short, he does it by separating and minimizing the portion of the paragraph that is most damaging to the LNAM and drawing the audience’s attention only to the portion that can be easily dismissed. He concludes his dismissal by asking his listeners “Did [Joseph] just make a direct connection between the Book of Mormon and Central America?”33 Even though Joseph did make a connection, the DVD presentation cuts away and we see Meldrum shaking his head as he reports “I don’t see it.”34
Despite the denial of a connection, the Bernhisel letter is never directly dealt with in the presentation. The elephant is still there, just out of sight. The question, then, is if Joseph knows by revelation that the Book of Mormon is geographically situated in North America (as LNAM supporters insist), why would he write in 1841 that a book on Central American ruins corresponds with the Book of Mormon and supports its testimony?35
After Joseph received the volumes of Incidents of Travel and he wrote the Bernhisel letter, several articles and references to the book appeared in the Times and Seasons. The presentation actually deals with two of these articles prior to dealing with the Bernhisel letter, even though they chronologically appeared after the letter.
The two articles referenced refer favorably to Stephens’ book, provide quotes from it, and argue that it supports the Book of Mormon. Meldrum insists that the articles were not written by or approved by Joseph Smith, who he inaccurately says was in hiding and not able to tend to his editorial duties at the paper. Even if John Taylor36 wrote the articles, this simply begs the question: If Joseph had had a revelation about geography, why did apostles feel free to speculate about it and why didn’t Joseph put a stop to it? As John Sorenson noted, “Whether the Prophet Joseph personally believed that the Nephite lands were in Central America or not, leaders in daily association with him felt that this was the best answer to the question ‘where?'”37
Perhaps the best answer is one that LNAM supporters refuse to countenance: That by 1842 Joseph also believed that Central America played a part in the setting for the Book of Mormon. An editorial signed by Joseph, as Editor, in the July 15, 1842, Times and Seasons clearly supports such an answer.38 In addition, a June 1842 Times and Seasons article, also signed by the editor (Joseph Smith), appealed to Mosaic traits among the Aztec as evidence for the Book of Mormon.39
In sum, it appears—like many scholars have concluded—that by 1842 Joseph Smith and many other Church leaders were comfortable with a Book of Mormon geography that, if not fully centered in Central America, at least included Central America within its scope. The LNAM does not embrace such a venue, and trying to claim revelatory approval for the LNAM or prophetic acceptance of such is not evidenced in the historical record.
Throughout its history the Church has repeatedly indicated that the Lord “had not yet revealed” where the Book of Mormon has taken place.40 In fact, when the First Presidency was asked to come up with a map regarding Book of Mormon geography they replied:
The First Presidency has often been asked to prepare some suggestive map illustrative of Nephite geography, but have never consented to do so. Nor are we acquainted with any of the Twelve Apostles who would undertake such a task. The reason is, that without further information they are not prepared even to suggest [a map]. The word of the Lord or the translation of other ancient records is required to clear up many points now so obscure.41
If Joseph Smith had been as clear about the location of the Book of Mormon as advocates of the LNAM assert, it would be incredible if the succeeding presidents of the Church had not embraced the doctrine and protected it, as they have with other revelations that Joseph received. But they did not. They have, in fact, done just the opposite and stated that the Lord has not revealed it. This message has been constant to the present day. Anyone who tries to say different is not dealing honestly with the evidence available.
Again, this paper is a summary of information presented in the full paper, Section 3: Joseph Smith. If you are interested in a longer exposition on the matters covered here, please see the full paper. The full paper also provides additional points at which the theories in DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography should be rejected.
1 John E. Clark, “Archaeological Trends and Book of Mormon Origins,” Brigham Young University Studies 44/4 (2005): 85.
2 This paper follows the scholarly custom of referring to an individual, at first reference, by full name and then subsequently referring to the individual by last name only. We fully recognize Rodney as a brother in the gospel, but in discussing secular issues (such as scholarly research and geographic models) it was felt that continually prefacing his name or the name of any other referenced scholar or individual with “Brother” or “Sister,” while accurate, would distract from the readability of the paper.
3 Rodney Meldrum, DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography: New scientific support for the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon; Correlation and Verification through DNA, Prophetic, Scriptural, Historical, Climatological, Archaeological, Social, and Cultural Evidence (Rodney Meldrum, 2008). The DVD is in sections; citations in this paper reference the DVD’s section number and title, followed by an approximate time stamp from the DVD.
4 FAIR recognizes that faithful individuals and scholars can honestly disagree on where Book of Mormon events took place; there is no revealed or officially accepted geography. FAIR provides an online reference to over 60 different geographic models at http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon_geography (click on Book of Mormon Geographical Models). That being said, this paper may occasionally make reference to a Mesoamerican model for Book of Mormon geography. Such reference is not made to argue for that particular geographical model, but because (1) the presentation often criticizes Mesoamerican models through misrepresentation and (2) the presentation often makes a claim that is equally true of the Mesoamerican model. If both models make the same claims and meet the criteria necessary for those claims, it stands to reason that both models would be equally viable relative to such claims.
5 Meldrum’s model places Book of Mormon peoples in an area roughly covering the Atlantic seaboard to the Rocky Mountains. This name was chosen as descriptive of the general model. We recognize that Meldrum may pick a different name at some point and would invite him to do so.
6 Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3:9 (March 1, 1842): 707-708. See also History of the Church 4:535-541.
7 Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, 2 volumes (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v., “continent.”
8 Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3:9 (March 1, 1842): 707-708. See also History of the Church 4:535-541.
9 Meldrum, DNA Evidence, Joseph Smith, 4:27.
10 Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, s.v., “country.”
11 This point, which is often over-looked by members and critics alike, follows from modern studies of population genetics. This concept is explored in detail on the FAIR wiki, “Amerindians as Lamanites,” at http://en.fairmormon.org/Amerindians_as_Lamanites (last accessed August 29, 2008).
12 Meldrum, DNA Evidence, Joseph Smith, 5:02.
13 Joseph Smith, “Mormonism,” The American Revivalist and Rochester Observer 7/6 (February 2, 1833). Only the last two paragraphs of Joseph’s letter to the newspaper were printed. The entire letter appeared eleven years later in the November 15, 1844 issue of the Times and Seasons.
14 Even the LNAM proposed by Meldrum doesn’t presume that Joseph Smith was talking about all of the tribes since the model doesn’t include tribes west of the Rockies among the presumed Lamanites.
15 Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, edited by Preston Nibley (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956), 82-83. See Meldrum, DNA Evidence, Joseph Smith, 6:13-7:00.
16 Meldrum, DNA Evidence, Joseph Smith, 8:45-9:25. For the full letter, see Dean C. Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Revised Edition (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2002), 344-346.
17 Such recasting of accounts and putting words into another’s voice was common when writing nineteenth-century history.
18 Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, 7 volumes (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1980), 2:79ñ80; for 3 June 1834.
19 An excellent discussion can be found in Kenneth W. Godfrey, “What Is the Significance of Zelph in the Study of Book of Mormon Geography?,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): 70ñ79 and Kenneth W. Godfrey, “The Zelph Story,” Brigham Young University Studies 29/2 (Spring 1989): 31ñ49. Meldrum is familiar with at least some of this discussion, since he quotes the article on his webpage. However, he does not mention that versions prior to the 1948 edition contain significant differences. See “What did The Prophet, Joseph Smith, know about Book of Mormon geography?” Frequently Asked Questions http://www.bookofmormonevidence.org/FAQ.php (last accessed 28 August 2008)
20 See Alma 63:4-9 and the stories of Hagoth and his travels.
21 See “Mesoamericans in Pre-Spanish South America” and “Mesoamericans in Pre-Columbian North America” in John W. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon: The F.A.R.M.S. Updates (Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah: Deseret Book Company and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992), 215ñ217, 218ñ220. See also “Unmasking the Maya: The Story of Sna Jtz’ibajom,” Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology. Online at http://anthropology.si.edu/maya/mayaprint.html (last accessed 30 May 2008).
22 John A. Widtsoe, “Is Book of Mormon Geography Known?,” Improvement Era (July 1950): 547.
23 A.S., “The Golden Bible, or, Campbellism Improved,” Observer and Telegraph. Religious, Political, and Literary, Hudson, Ohio (18 November 1830): 3; emphasis added.
24 The Fredonia Censor, Fredonia, New York 11 (7 March 1832): , on-line at http://sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/NY/miscNYS2.htm#030732 (last accessed August 28, 2008).
25 Robert J. Matthews, “Notes on ‘Lehi’s Travels,'” Brigham Young University Studies 12/3 (Spring 1972): 312.
26 The Evening and Morning Star (Independence, Missouri) 1/9 (February, 1833).
27 “Facts are Stubborn Things,” Times and Seasons 3/22 (September 15, 1842), 922. The Isthmus of Darien is today called the Isthmus of Panama.
28 Parley P. Pratt, “Ruins in Central America,” Millennial Star 2/11 (March 1842): 165.
29 Orson’s Pratt’s An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions (1840), for example, opined that Lehi and family “were safely brought across the great Pacific ocean, and landed upon the western coast of South America,” whereupon they eventually “emigrated to the northern parts of South America, leaving the wicked nation in possession of the middle and southern parts of the same.” If Joseph was giving revelation about Zelph, why did Orson not understand the Book of Mormon events to have taken place in North America?
30 Meldrum breaks this single paragraph into two paragraphs. (Meldrum, DNA Evidence, Joseph Smith, 30:30.)
31 Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Revised Edition, 533.
32 It is unknown whether Meldrum engages in this technique knowingly or not. Either way, it is important to examine how he uses the technique, as it bears directly on how he deals with evidence that doesn’t support his LNAM.
33 Meldrum, DNA Evidence, Joseph Smith, 32:02.
34 Meldrum, DNA Evidence, Joseph Smith, 32:10.
35 An interesting side question is how Joseph would know that an illustrated book about Central America corresponded with the Book of Mormon, unless he had some appreciation of what Nephite settlements may have looked likeóeven if he didn’t know exactly where they were?
36 Ken Godfrey argues that Wilford Woodruff likely wrote at least some of the reviews of Stephens. See Godfrey, “What Is the Significance of Zelph?,” 75.
37 John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1985), 3.
38 See Joseph Smith, “American Antiquities,” Times and Seasons 3/18 (July 15, 1842): 860; see identification of the author (signed “Ed.”) in Stan Larson, Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s Archaeological Search for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Freethinker Press in association with Smith Research Associates, 1996), 21 note 94.
39 Joseph Smith, “Traits of the Mosaic History, Found Among the Azteca Nations,” Times and Seasons 3/16 (15 June 1842): 818ñ820.
40 Joseph F. Smith and George D. Pyper, “The Book of Mormon Geography,” 73 The Instructor (April 1938).
41 George Q. Cannon, “Editorial Thoughts: The Book of Mormon Geography,” 25/1 The Juvenile Instructor (1 January 1890): 18ñ19.