The Book of Mormon is inextricably intertwined with Joseph Smith. We undeniably have the text because he translated it. Recently there has been much ado about what Joseph Smith thought about the book’s geography. Without trying to tie Joseph down to any particular idea at any particular time (and there is also evidence that he was flexible in his thinking on the subject, altering and refining some of his views with later information), the real question is what we should expect of Joseph as a geographer of the Book of Mormon. For those who might suggest that Joseph should be held as the definer of Book of Mormon geography, that suggest appears to be based on one or more assumptions about Joseph that neither the church nor he would accept as accurate. Any of the following might be the basis for assuming that Joseph knew the geography of the Book of Mormon, but none are correct.
1) Joseph was a prophet, therefore he knew everything. That is perhaps an enticing thought, but one that Joseph and every other modern prophet has actively denied. Joseph Fielding Smith taught:
When is a prophet a prophet? Whenever he speaks under the inspiration and influence of the Holy Ghost. Men frequently speak and express their own opinions. The Lord has not deprived men of individual opinions. Good men, men of faith, have divergent views on many things. There is no particular harm in this if these views are not in relation to the fundamentals. Some men are Democrats, some Republicans. Some believe in a particular political philosophy and some are bitterly opposed to it, and yet they are faithful men with a testimony of the gospel.
When prophets write and speak on the principles of the gospel, they should have the guidance of the Spirit. If they do, then all that they say will be in harmony with the revealed word. If they are in harmony then we know that they have not spoken presumptuously. Should a man speak or write, and what he says is in conflict with the standards which are accepted, with the revelations the Lord has given, then we may reject what he has said, no matter who he is. Paul declared that he, at times, gave his own opinion in his writing.
2) Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, so he knew the geography. As a translator, he wouldn’t know any more than the text did. If he knew more, it would be because he created the text, not translated it. As an author he would know because he had it in mind so that he could write the text. Of course, we don’t believe that, so we should accept this reason.
3) Moroni told Joseph. This idea is usually based on a late statement from his mother that prior to the translation, Joseph told stories to his family. This is the statement from Lucy Mack Smith’s draft of her history, before it was recast into smoother language:
In the course of our evening conversations Joseph would give us some of the most amusing recitals which could be imagined he would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent their dress their manner of traveling the animals which they rode The cities that were built by them the structure of their buildings with every particular of their mode of warfare their religious worship—as particularly as though he had spent his life with them.
(Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir, 345.)
Accepting that the basic statement is correct (while allowing for some variation in the details since it was written down long after the fact), we have Joseph receiving cultural information about the people (presumably from Moroni). The statement never says anything about geography. In fact, the statement is consistent with what Moroni seems to have done, which is provide a vision. That is a good way to understand the people, but a poor way to learn geography. I doubt Joseph knew how to create a geography based on background images to the people he was paying attention to.
4) Joseph made statements related to geography, therefore he knew. This is really a fascinating assertion, because it is the faith-promoting reworking of both 1 and 2. It assumes that because he said something that he both knew what he was talking about and that it had to be right because he said it. That is denied by any close examination of Joseph’s history. In Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, he documents a number of occasions when Joseph Smith indulged in the frontier habit of exaggerated boasting (much to the discomfort of accompanying saints who felt he should be more circumspect). Bushman describes:
Charlotte Haven, an observant young lady from New Hampshire who heard Joseph report on his Springfield adventures, was appalled. “His language and manner were the coarsest possible. His object seemed to be to amuse and excite laughter in his audience.” Expecting more from a man who claimed to be a prophet, she thought nothing he said “impressed upon his people the great object of life.” Joseph appeared raucous and impious. He uttered not a word “calculated to create devotional feelings.”
(Rough Stone Rolling, 483.)
Joseph Smith certainly never assumed that everything he said was to be considered either inviolate truth or even religious. Sometimes he simply amused his audience. Accepting statements only because Joseph made them denies Joseph the right to be the man he was, a right he declared firmly.
Conclusion: None of these assumptions ought be accepted as a reason to assume that Joseph Smith knew much more about the Book of Mormon than anyone else, and certainly not about geography. I find it much more plausible that he was excited to learn how marvelous a work he had translated, just as the rest of us are.