“It doesn’t matter where the Book of Mormon happened. It just matters that it did.”
–Someone you know, probably.
Since the early days of the Church armchair geographers and academics have spent considerable time interpreting textual clues in hopes of determining the locations described in the Book of Mormon. As one might suspect, opinions vary drastically, and debates regularly become heated. As someone who’s had a keen interest in Book of Mormon geography since about 2008, it’s fascinating to see how one common source leads to so many divergent interpretations and conclusions. I’ve seen models based in Mesoamerica, the Great Lakes region, Western New York, Baja California, Malaysia, Peru, Chile and American’s Heartland. In recent years we’ve seen a new industry sprout up around this question of Book of Mormon geography. Multiple companies offer tours of potential Book of Mormon lands which run anywhere from $900-$4,200 per person. That’s a lot of money and a luxury for most people. One tour will take you to Miamisburg, OH (among other places) to investigate mounds that “may have been built by the Nephites.” Another will take you to Cancun where “a local LDS guide will give the history and archaeology of the site and suggest what relationship the ancient Mayas may have had to the peoples of the Book of Mormon.” (Those are direct quotes from their websites, which I won’t link to.) You’ll notice the language is very measured and deliberate. (“May have,” “suggest,” etc.) These are lucrative businesses with a built-in client base, so there’s financial motive to present their models and tours as potential Book of Mormon lands. But to claim they are the places Nephi and Mormon walked is probably a liability issue. How can one possibility hope to know where the Nephites walked when there are so potential locations? Well, here’s the spoiler alert for the rest of this post: if you wish to visit these sites or join one of these tours, do so only for their cultural, historical and archeological significance because they most certainly aren’t Book of Mormon lands.
IN THE BEGINNING
My personal history with Book of Mormon geography goes all the way back to my teen years. The first time I read the Book of Mormon front-to-back was the summer of my 16th or 17th year. I had a mission on the horizon, and I figured I may as well seriously read what I was going to be promoting. Even though I didn’t understand most of what I was reading, and what I did understand was filtered through an LDS lens, I was captivated by the narrative. (Teancum was always my personal favorite.) I was not expecting to fall in love with the Book of Mormon, but I did. I distinctly remember the palpable excitement as Jesus’ appearance at Bountiful drew closer with every turn of the page. 1 AD. 5 AD. 16 AD. And finally, there He was. There were times I left my friends playing outside to go down to my basement bedroom and read. I think that was when my testimony, if you want to call it that, developed.
This was also the time when the Mesoamerican Model dominated LDS thought and missionary work in Cental and South America was booming. It seemed the “Lamanites” were indeed “blossoming as the rose.” Arnold Friberg’s incredible paintings of Book of Mormon scenes, clearly influenced by Cental American geography and ruins, helped to cement the Mesoamerican Model in the minds of most Latter-Day Saints. If you’re older like I am, you may remember that the Church published a missionary edition of the Book of Mormon between 1963 and 1981 that included photographs of Mesoamerican sites, murals and artifacts. Imagery is a powerful thing.
As I neared completion of the book, I read about Moroni “wandering whithersoever [he] could for the safety of [his] own life.” And that’s where I got a bit confused. There’s a lot of land and dense jungle in Mesoamerica and I didn’t understand why he couldn’t…just leave. Why couldn’t he pack up in the middle of the night and start walking north or south? It seemed to me that it would have been easy to get away—unless, of course, he were in some kind of enclosed area. I also couldn’t understand why the plates were retrieved from a hill of considerable size “convenient to the village of Manchester, NY” if the Book of Mormon took place 3,500 miles away. The “Two Cumorah” was preposterous to me even then. I could never make sense of it, so I set my confusion aside because in the church some questions are often couched in the “not important to our salvation” category.
A few years later while on my mission in Bilbao, Spain (1993-1995) I served in a beautiful coastal city called Avilés. Knocking doors in Spain was always ineffective, especially during the day, (during my 22 months in Spain I think I got in two doors, maybe? And I taught the sixth discussion all of two times. I couldn’t tell you what information was in the second-sixth discussions). So, we needed another way of contacting people. Our district, comprised of four elders and two sisters, decided to make a pancarta, or street display. It was a two-sided board, about six or seven feet tall. On one side we recreated the standard Book of Mormon cover. On the back side we had a world map with an arrow from the Red Sea to Chile. I don’t know how or why we chose that particular location, but apparently, we can attribute this landing point hypothesis to Joseph Smith’s counselor, Frederick G. Williams. As I recall, our pancarta worked about as well as knocking on doors.
In 2008 a good friend of mine introduced me to Wayne May’s Great Lakes/Heartland Model. This model, which placed the Book of Mormon primarily in the region covering the Great Lakes to Iowa (though it has evolved to cover a most of the Midwest), was compelling and had attracted a fair number of proselytes by that time. I read May’s books and watched several of his lectures and enjoyed them very much. He raised issues, ideas, and questions I hadn’t previously considered. Importantly, the Heartland Model potentially resolved the Moroni Question. If May’s model were correct, Moroni didn’t really have to walk all that far to Western NY.
An important component of Heartland Model is the assumption that Montrose, IA is the site of Zarahemla from the Book of Mormon. Montrose has become a Ground Zero for Heartlanders. We can trace this to D&C 125 (March 1841) which instructs the Saints to, “build up a city unto my name upon the land opposite the city of Nauvoo and let the name of be named upon it.” Heartland proponents claim that in this revelation the Lord revealed the location of the original Zarahemla. That, to me, is a pretty big reach. I don’t see anything in D&C 125 that leads me to believe Montrose and Zarahemla are one and the same any more than Manchester, England and Manchester, NY are one and the same. Naming new settlements and cities after existing ones is common. The Saints first settled the area in 1839 after the expulsion from Missouri and referred to it as Zarahemla before the revelation designated it so. Nevertheless, Wayne May secured funding (+$500,000) to purchase the land and perform an archeological dig at the proposed Zarahemla Temple site in Montrose, IA, which he discovered using dowsing rods. I don’t believe they will find anything. That said, I am grateful to Wayne May for exposing me to another perspective. This was an important step in my personal development as it represented my first break from LDS orthodoxy, setting me on the path to where I am today.
In this post I want to address some new textual discoveries regarding geography of the Book of Mormon. Well, they aren’t new, per se (they’ve been there since 1830), but they have been overlooked. I know there are a lot of opinions and deeply held convictions regarding Book of Mormon geography. There are businesses, books sales and conferences and reputations at stake. I appreciate that. But I also believe it’s important to evaluate new evidence and adjust belief systems when necessary. For the record, I don’t claim to know where the Book of Mormon events took place. I won’t identify any specific locations. However, I think we have a pretty good general idea.
As always, cultural context is important in understanding how the early Saints, including Joseph Smith, interpreted and understood Book of Mormon geography, which we’ll also touch on. As the founder of the faith, Joseph’s statements hold weight, but I don’t believe he knew. His limited statements of the book’s geography aren’t supported by the text. The opinions of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, W.W. Phelps, Orson Pratt, Ezra Taft Benson, John Sorenson, John Lund, Wayne May, Jonathan Neville, Rian Nelson, Rod Meldrum and countless others aren’t important. The text, as they say, is king. The only two important people are Mormon and Moroni. Mormon, in particular, goes to great lengths to describe his surroundings and those descriptions were transmitted or translated into English. I believe this is intentional and may be part of the reason he includes so many migration, war and conflict accounts in the Book of Alma.
I also want to briefly touch on Joseph Smith role as “translator.” Despite what our tradition holds, Joseph Smith had no control over the text, or at least the original text. (Significant changes were made in subsequent editions.) He didn’t study the Reformed Egyptian and decide how to translate into English. This is called “tight control,” (as opposed to “loose control” in which Joseph would have provided the English translation.) He read what was given him, whether that was via the Nephite Interpreters or a prepared text,
“Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I amto do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee. the things which are sealed, for I will bring them forth in mine own due time; for I will show unto the children of men that I am able to do mine own work. Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee and obtained the which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read, until I shall see fit in mine own to all things unto the children of men.” (2 Nephi 27:20-22, emphasis added.)
The Book of Mormon wasn’t Joseph’s work. It’s God’s work. It is, above all, an act of communication. The plates were likely full of language, idioms and expressions, transmitted through Reformed Egyptian (itself corrupted over the course of 1,000 years), that would have been incomprehensible to contemporary readers. A 1:1 “translation” would have resulted in an unreadable text. Josiah Priest complained in American Antiquities that the Book of Mormon “shew[ed] everywhere language and phrases of too late a construction to accord with the Asiatic manner of composition.” (p. 10). He’s correct, of course. Others have pointed out the Greek-rooted words in the Book of Mormon, such as “baptism,” and the very Greek name, “Lachoneus.” The solution, as Nephi suggested, is that God communicates with man according to man’s language. The text has to be culturally decipherable to its intended audience.
Joseph Smith was the reader. To be perfectly honest, I have serious reservations on the book’s origins. (Not its veracity, but how we ended up with it. Joseph’s unfamiliarity with its content and the fact he never taught from it during his lifetime is perplexing.) When Hyrum suggested “he thought best that the information of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon be related by Joseph himself to the Elders present that all might know for themselves” in 1831, Joseph reportedly replied it “‘it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon” and that “it was not expedient for him to relate these things.” Why? One can only guess. I think it’s possible that when the time came to publish the Book of Mormon, God looked around, saw Joseph Smith and said, “You’ll do.” I don’t think it was any more complicated than that, though I reserve the right to be wrong.
Whatever the case, the Book of Mormon is God’s work and I’ve come to believe that there are no accidental words in its pages. Every word matters. And when it comes to Book of Mormon geography, there are four seemingly innocuous English words that tell us far more about Book of Mormon geography than anyone realizes. As you’ve probably guessed, those words are “nearly surrounded by water.”
Let’s jump in.
CULTURAL CONTEXT FOR EARLY BOOK OF MORMON INTERPRETATION
In a June 4, 1834 letter to Emma Smith written on the banks of the Mississippi in Pike County, Ill (not far from Nauvoo), Joseph mentioned “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 & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity.” So far as we now know, this is the earliest identification of Book of Mormon lands. Again, for Heartland proponents, this is as good as God Himself identifying Book of Mormon lands. But were these mounds and bones actual remnants of the Nephites or was Joseph Smith influenced by prevailing cultural beliefs and attitudes? I knew there were contemporaries of Joseph Smith who believed the Native American tribes were members of the infamous “Lost Ten Tribes” of Israel, but I didn’t know just how widespread and pervasive this belief was. It was inconceivable to “enlightened” European settlers that these magnificent earthworks were constructed by uncultured, bloodthirsty savages. The Mounds, in their minds, demanded another explanation.
Robert Silverberg wrote,
“The English astronomer Francis Baily, accompanying a party of settlers down the Ohio in 1796, stopped to examine a group of mounds on what is today the West Virginia side of the river, and made the first recorded notice of the striking Crave Creek tumulus, which unknown pioneers had already discovered and partly excavated. The mounds, Baily wrote, must have been ‘built by a race of people more enlightened than the present Indians, and at some period of time very far distant.’ This viewpoint was to be prevalent in the controversy that raged over the mounds for the next hundred years. Identifying the vanished race became a popular scholarly pastime. The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, of whom nothing had been heard since the conquest of Jerusalem by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., were a favorite choice. Many accounts appeared of the Hebrew migration to the Americas, listing dates of arrival, routes taken by specific tribes, and the mounds erected by each.” (Emphasis added.)
This is an important issue because some have suggested the Mound Builder Myth influenced Joseph Smith to write the Book of Mormon, essentially creating an origin story for these otherwise unknown people. We read in the text that the Nephites were descended from Joseph of Egypt though his son, Manasseh. So, the Book of Mormon fits comfortably within this worldview. Joseph Smith makes multiple mentions of the “lost tribes.” In his January 1833 letter to Noah Saxton, Joseph prophesied in the name of Jesus Christ that,
“…not many years shall pass away before the United States shall present such a scene of bloodshed as has not a parallel in the history of our nation. Pestilence, hail, famine and earthquake will sweep the wicked off this generation from off the face of this Land to open and prepare the way for the return of the lost tribes of Israel from the north country.” (See also D&C:133.)
Joseph Smith, of course, was one in a long line of advocates of the Lost Tribe view. In 1735 an Irishman named James Adair took up residence with the Chickasaw Indians and spent several decades with them. After leaving in 1765, he published a book titled The History of the American Indian, in which he lays out 23 highly developed arguments he considered proof that the Chickasaw were descended from ancient Hebrews. Adair found support from Elias Boudinot, one of America’s Founding Fathers, who organized the American Bible Society in 1816 and in that same year published his own work titled, A Star in the West, or, a humble attempt to discover the long lost ten tribes of Israel, preparatory to their return to their beloved city, Jerusalem. (I love these old book titles.) In the concluding pages, Boudinot writes,
“What could possibly bring greater declarative glory to God, or tend more essentially to affect and rouse the nations of the earth, with a deeper sense of the certainty of the prophetic declarations of the holy scriptures, and thus call their attention to the truth of divine revelation than a full discovery, that these wandering nations of Indians are the long-lost tribes of Israel; but kept under the special protection of Almighty God, though despised by all mankind for more than two thousand years, separated from and unknown to the civilized world? Thus wonderfully brought to the knowledge of their fellow men, they may be miraculously prepared for instruction, and stand ready, at the appointed time, when God shall raise the signal to the nations of Europe, to be restored to the land and country of their fathers, and to Mount Zion the city of David, their great king and this in direct, positive and literal fulfilment of the numerous promises of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, their pious progenitors and founders, near four thousand years ago.” (p. 280, emphasis added)
Josiah Priest suggested in his 1833 book American Antiquities that the mounds and earthworks in Ohio and New York could be traced to an ancient lost race that predated Native Americans. “These tribes,” wrote Priest, “made up the Kingdom of Israel in Biblical times. When Assyria left their kingdom in ruins, the tribes disappeared and were never seen again.” Priest also suggested that Noah’s Ark was built in America, possibly reflecting LDS thought that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri and Oliver Huntington’s 1888 statement in which he claimed Joseph Smith said Noah’s Ark was built “in or near South Carolina.” (For a long while I doubted Huntington’s account as he has been proven unreliable on other issues, but now I’m not so sure.)
Unfortunately for Adair, Priest, and countless others, their hypotheses have largely fallen out of favor. Garrick Mallery, Vice-President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, addressed a Toronto audience in 1889,
“Many authors have contended that the North American Indians were descendants of the ‘ten lost tribes of Israel.’ Prominent among them was James Adair, whose work, highly useful with regard to the customs of the southeastern Indians, among whom he spent many years, was mainly devoted to the proof of the proposition. The Rev. Ethan Smith (A View of the Hebrews) is also conspicuous, and even the last book discussing the Indians, published last year, bearing the comprehensive title ‘The American Indian,’ favors the same theory.
“The argument that the Indians are descended from the ‘lost tribes’ is weakened by the fact, now generally accepted, that those tribes were not lost but most of the people were deported and absorbed, their traces being left during centuries, and others fled to Jerusalem and Egypt. If any large number of them had remained in a body and had migrated at any time long before the Columbian discovery, but later than the capture of Samaria in the seventh century B.C., their journey from Mesopotamia to North America would have required assistance of miracles that have not been suggested except perhaps in the book of Mormon.” (Emphasis added.)
That last line gave me a bit of a chuckle, but also illustrates one of the common misconceptions of the Book of Mormon. The Nephites never considered themselves part of the Lost Tribes. They were simply a branch broken off from the main tree, of which there were many. I’d guess that between the families of Lehi and Ishmael there were less than two dozen people, including Zoram, who migrated to the Nephite Promised Land. The Brother of Jared and the Mulekite parties were also very small, as was the Promised Land.
Thing changed in 1841 with the publication of John L. Stevens landmark work, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. It was the first introduction of the Aztec and Mayan empires for most Western readers. It was a sensation and bestseller. Stephens’ descriptions of the culture and ruins which he opined were “not of great antiquity,” complemented by Frederick Catherwood’s masterful illustrations, captured the imagination of the American public. Wealthy Americans tried to purchase artifacts and ruins to display in their homes and on their property. To say Incidents had a profound influence on the early Saints would be an understatement. John E. Page wrote a letter to Joseph Smith from Philadelphia on September 1, 1841,
“…I have lately availed myself of the purchase of Stevens and Catherwood’s travels in Guatemala or Central America in which those gentlemen have exhibited by seventy plates the antiquities of that county which when compared with the book of Mormon so completely proves the truth and divinity of the book of Mormon. There is not a Gentile dog left to stir a tongue in an attempt to put down the collateral testimony which those records afford me in proof of the Book of Mormon.” (Spelling corrected and emphasis added.)
John Bernhisel, then in New York City, sent Joseph Smith a copy of Stephen’s book via Wiford Woodruff on September 8, 1841, with the attached message,
You will herewith receive a copy of Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, which I hope you will do me the favor to accept, as a small testimony of my gratitude to you for the valuable services you are rendering me, and as a token of my regard for you as a Prophet of the Lord. With sentiments of the highest consideration, I am yours in the bonds of the New and Everlasting Covenant.
J M. Bernhisel
Joseph Smith replied on November 16, 1841,
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 & develops 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 & comprehensive.” (Spelling corrected, emphasis added.)
The letter was scribed by John Taylor and I’m admittedly doubtful Joseph Smith actually read the two-volume set. If these are Joseph Smith’s words, I don’t quite know how to square them with his letter to Emma Smith written during Zion’s Camp. Regardless, Smith donated Incidents to the Nauvoo library on January 31, 1844, along with a number of other books. We can, however, say with certainty that W.W. Phelps did read the book, as evidenced by his two editorials that appeared in the Times and Seasons in 1842. (Joseph Smith is listed as “Editor” of the newspaper, but even John Sorenson concedes these were written by someone else. This isn’t Joseph Smith’s style.) The first appeared in the September 15th issue under the title “FACTS ARE STUBBORN THINGS,”
“From an extract from ‘Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America,’ it will be seen that the proof of the Nephites and Lamanites [p. 921] dwelling on this continent, according to the account in the Book of Mormon, is developing itself in a more satisfactory way than the most sanguine believer in that revelation, could have anticipated. It certainly affords us a gratification that the world of mankind does not enjoy, to give publicity to such important developments of the remains and ruins of those mighty people. When we read in the Book of Mormon that Jared and his brother came on to this continent from the confusion and scattering at the Tower, and lived here more than a thousand years, and covered the whole continent from sea to sea, with towns and cities; and 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, as a branch of the house of Israel, and then read such a goodly traditionary account, as the one below, we can not but think the Lord has a hand in bringing to pass his strange act, and proving the Book of Mormon true in the eyes of all the people. The extract below, comes as near the real fact, as the four Evangelists do to the crucifixion of Jesus.—Surely “facts are stubborn things.” It will be as it ever has been, the world will prove Joseph Smith a true prophet by circumstantial evidence, in experiments, as they did Moses and Elijah.” (Emphasis added.)
His second editorial on October 1 reads,
“It is certainly a good thing for the excellency and veracity, of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, that the ruins of Zarahemla have been found where the Nephites left them: and that a large stone with engravings upon it, as Mosiah said; and a ‘large round stone, with the sides sculptured in hieroglyphics,’ as Mr. Stephens has published, is also among the left remembrances of the, (to him,) lost and unknown. We are not going to declare positively that the ruins of Quirigua are those of Zarahemla, but when the land and the stones, and the books tell the story so plain, we are of opinion, that it would require more proof than the Jews could bring to prove the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb, to prove that the ruins of the city in question, are not one of those referred to in the Book of Mormon.” (Emphasis added.)
The Limited Geography model was first proposed in 1926, and that was a step in the right direction. Book of Mormon lands are extremely small. The Mesoamerican model, promoted by John Sorenson (who wrote the book on the subject) and the majority of LDS scholars, began to dominate LDS thought in the 1960s and 1970s. It remains the dominant view among LDS intellectuals and a significant number of lay Latter-Day Saints. While the Church is officially neutral on the issue, it published an article by Dan Peterson in the January 2000 issue of the Ensign which reads in part,
“…the region of Mesoamerica—particularly southern Mexico and Guatemala, where many suggest that much of the Book of Mormon story may have happened—is a place of continuing volcanic and seismic activity. Painstaking research of John L. Sorenson and others has demonstrated the plausibility of the complex geographical data contained in the Book of Mormon. It suggests many fascinating correlations with what we continue to learn about life in ancient Mesoamerica.” (The Church has also published articles by John Sorenson and the Mesoamerican Model.)
As with those who run Book of Mormon lands tours, Peterson hedges his words a bit, writing “may have happened,” “suggests,” etc. And here’s the heart of the issue: we’re nearly 200 years removed from the publication of the Book of Mormon, and we’ve not yet concretely identified a geographical setting. All anyone can do is “suggest” what “may be.” For critics, this is sufficient evidence Joseph Smith is at best a pious fraud and at worst a straight con man who borrowed from Ethan Smith’s 1823 book A View of the Hebrews, which also argues the American Indians were descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. Whether or not the stories in the Hebrew Bible are historically accurate or not, we can at least identify places like Jericho and the Red Sea.
What I have noticed over the years, however, is that both the LDS church and its critics tend to make a lot of claims that the Book of Mormon doesn’t make for itself. For example, that Book of Mormon lands covered tens of thousands of square miles. It didn’t. And in another, that the Nephites are the forefathers of the American Indians, or as we read in the Wentworth Letter (likely penned by W.W. Phelps), “the remnant (of Lehi) are the Indians that now inhabit this country.” Nearly a decade earlier in Joseph Smith’s letter to Noah Saxton he declared that “the Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western Tribes of Indians.” I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t believe that’s the case. The Church was correct to remove that claim from the Book of Mormon introduction.
As I see it, there really are only two possibilities: either the Book of Mormon is the product of Joseph Smith’s imagination; or, as Sallah said to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark when they learned the medallion identifying the Ark of the Covenant’s location had two sides: “they’re looking in the wrong place.”
IT’S A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL
As I mentioned in the beginning, Mormon and Moroni are the two most important figures when it comes to Book of Mormon geography. And what Mormon describes is a relatively small area of land. The more I studied his references and descriptions, the smaller and smaller Book of Mormon lands became. As Dan Peterson said in a lecture (I’m paraphrasing), “You can add up all the distances people travel and it’s clear they’re not going very far in any direction.” The text demands a Limited Geography model. But even with information we’re no closer to identifying Book of Mormon lands.
Generally, when tackling Book of Mormon geography, a modeler begins with what is called an “internal map.” Internal maps are not meant to be accurate, but give general positions based on textual descriptions. A Book of Mormon internal map will include the Land Northward, a narrow neck, the Land Southward, and the several seas. I’m not going to present an internal map, but I do believe it will be helpful to make a few general observations regarding the geography.
There are two major land divisions mentioned in the text: the Land Northward and the Land Southward. The Jaredites landed in the Land Northward, which was also known at various times as Desolation and Mulek. The Nephites landed in the Land Southward, which was also known at various times Bountiful and Lehi. The land Southward includes, from south to north, the Land of First Inheritance, the Land of Nephi, the narrow strip of wilderness, Zarahemla and Bountiful. We have less information about the Land Northward, but that’s where the final battle of Cumorah took place. The two lands were joined by a “narrow neck.”
One thing that I found incredibly interesting about the text is that Moroni writes,
“And in the days of Lib theserpents were destroyed. Wherefore they did go into the land southward, to hunt food for the people of the land, for the land was covered with animals of the forest. And Lib also himself became a great . And they built a great city by the neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land. And they did preserve the land for a wilderness, to get game.” (Ether 3:19-21)
This is the same Land Southward the Nephites discovered when they landed,
“And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there werein the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men.” (1 Nephi 18:25)
The Nephites landed in the Jaredite game reserve. It was easy to establish this game reserve if it were an enclosed area, if you catch my drift. It’s one of those little details I find highly unlikely Joseph Smith invented and demonstrates just how small of an area we’re talking about.
When the Nephites and Lamanites initially split, the Nephites headed north and settled the Land of Nephi. The Mulekites, who also left Jerusalem, landed in the Land Northward, found the remains of the destroyed Jaredite civilization before settling in the Land Southward and establishing Zarahemla. After the more wicked part of the Nephites were destroyed in the Land of Nephi, Mosiah 1 led a migration northward where they found Zarahemla and joined King Benjamin and his people.
This more or less brings us to the Book of Alma.
Mormon arrives on the scene nearly 1,000 years after Nephi landed in the Promised Land. I don’t know if we truly appreciate just how long of time that is. We have very few geographical descriptions from Nephi and Jacob, which make sense considering they never ventured out north of the Land of Nephi (so far as we know.) I think we can reasonably say it’s sufficient time for the both the Lands Northward and Southward to be mapped and well-known among the people. We read in the text that Mormon was born in the Land Northward and at the age of 12 moved with his father (and presumably his family) to the Land Southward. As historian of the Nephite people and redactor of the record, he’s able to give us such precise geographical information because none of the land Northward and Southward are terra incognita. He’s been to these places. He’s seen it all with his own eyes. And he didn’t have to go very far to do so.
One of Mormon’s most detailed geographical descriptions is found in Alma 22.
“Thus theon the northward was called , and the land on the southward was called Bountiful, it being the wilderness which is filled with all manner of wild animals of every kind, a part of which had come from the land northward for food. And now, it was only the of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small of land between the land northward and the land southward. And it came to pass that the Nephites had inhabited the land Bountiful, even from the east unto the west sea, and thus the Nephites in their wisdom, with their guards and their armies, had hemmed in the Lamanites on the south, that thereby they should have no more possession on the north, that they might not overrun the land northward. Therefore, the Lamanites could have no more possessions only in the land of Nephi, and the wilderness round about. (v. 31-34.)
There are three key pieces of information in this passage. The first concerns the width or distance of the “Line Bountiful” and the Land Desolation. According to Mormon, it was a day and a half’s journey. I’d wager this is roughly 15 miles. What is “the Line Bountiful?” As I was researching this subject, I consulted Royal Skousen’s Critical Text version of the Book of Mormon. Interestingly enough, at the time his book was published, he didn’t know. It shows how even the sharpest of mind and most astute of readers can easily overlook certain parts of the Book of Mormon and why every word matters. The Line Bountiful, as we later learn, was a strategic defensive line established by the Nephites to prevent the Lamanites from entering the Land Northward,
“And the Nephites and the armies of Moronihah were driven even into the land of Bountiful; And there they did fortify against the Lamanites, from the west sea, even unto the east; it being ajourney for a Nephite, on the line which they had fortified and stationed their armies to defend their north country.” (Helaman 4:7)
The second key piece of information is that the Nephites managed to “hem in” the Lamanites in the Land Southward. Never in the Book of Mormon do we read about any land south of the Nephite land of First Inheritance or the Land of Nephi. This leads us to our third and most important piece of information: Land of Nephi and the Land of Zarahemla were “nearly surrounded by water.” When the Nephites established fortifications on the Line Bountiful, which was just inside the Land Southward (south of the narrow neck) they effectively hemmed in the Lamanites in the Land of Nephi. Why were the Lamanites “only in the land of Nephi, and the wilderness round about”? There was, quite literally, nowhere else to go. “Hemmed in” means exactly that.
Quite by chance (or perhaps not), the phrase “nearly surrounded by water” piqued my curiosity. For the last couple of years, I’ve been researching words and phrases from the Book of Mormon, and I’ve found quite a few that are specific to Joseph Smith’s era: “One eternal round,” “adieu,” “a hiss and byword” (or, “a byword and hissing”), “betwixt life and death,” etc. These were all very common expressions, especially in reference to religious writings. Joseph Smith didn’t plagiarize existing texts. This is how people in the early 1800s spoke and wrote.
NEARLY SURROUND BY WATER
I decided to deep dive into “nearly surrounded by water” without any real expectation. What possible significance could these four words have? As I usually do, I headed over to Google’s Ngram Viewer. It’s a terrific tool that allows the user to search specific words and phrases by date range from Google’s immense library of digitized books. I entered “nearly surrounded by water” and was stunned to find dozens and dozens of hits, usually in conjunction with the phrase “narrow neck.” The majority of hits were found in textbooks and dictionaries from the 1740s to the 1850s. I looked at my computer screen somewhat bewilderedly and realized that perhaps I was on to something. Here’s a sample of what I found:
“A Peninsula…is a Part of dry Land everywhere enclosed with Water, save one narrow Neck adjoining the same to the continent. An Isthmus, is that narrow Neck of Land annexing the Peninsula to the continent, by which people may enter into one from another.” (“The Universal Pocket-Book,” 1740)
“A Peninsula is a Part of Land, which almost an Island, being encompassed by the Sea; but where is joined to the Continent by some narrow Neck of Land, which narrow Neck is called an Isthmus.” (George Gordon, An Introduction to Geography, Astronomy and Dialling, 1742)
“A peninsula, almost an island, is a tract of land nearly surrounded by water, and which is joined to another portion by a neck of land called an isthmus.” (“An Introduction of Geography,” F. Francis, 1812)
“A peninsula is a portion of land nearly surrounded by water, as Arabia.” (“Geographical Delineations…,” John Aiken, 1807)
“A peninsula is a track of land, nearly surrounded by water; as Italy. An isthmus is a neck of land which joins the peninsula to the mainland; as the Isthmus of Corinth, which connects Morea with Greece.” (“The Youth’s Guide…,” Second Edition, Mordecai Stewart, 1822)
“A Peninsula is a tract of land nearly surrounded by water, and is joined to another portion of land by an isthmus; as the peninsula of Jutland, between the North Sea and the Baltic; the peninsula of Malacca (Malaysia), between the Indian Ocean and the Chinese Sea. An Isthmus is a narrow neck of land between two seas or oceans; it connects a small tract of land with a larger or one continent with another.” (A System of Geography for Schools, 1825)
“A peninsula is a tract of land nearly surrounded by water, and joined to another portion of land by an isthmus; as the peninsula of Jutland between the North Sea and Baltic; the peninsula of Malacca (Malaysia)…” (“A System of Geography, for the use of Schools…,” Thomas Keith, 1826)
“What is a peninsula? Land nearly surrounded by water. What is an Isthmus? The narrow strip of land which connects a peninsula with the main land. (Practical Geography, as Taught in the Monitorial School, Boston, William Bentley Fowle, 1827)
“A peninsula is a track of land nearly surrounded by water. Spain and Portugal are a peninsula. The Morea in Greece is a peninsula.” (“An Epitome of Universal Geography,” Nathan Hale, 1830)
“A peninsula is a piece of land nearly surrounded by water.” (“The Child’s Book of American Geography,” 1832)
“A peninsula is a portion of land extending from some larger body and nearly surrounded by water. RULE FOR DESCRIBING A PENINSULA: tell its direction from the main and what bodies of water nearly surround it.” (Cornell’s Intermediate Geography, 1875.) (This is what Mormon does. The Land Southward is, well, southward. It’s bordered by the Sea East and the Sea West.)
“ISTHMUS, noun ist’mus. [Latin] A neck or narrow slip of land by which two continents are connected, or by which a peninsula is united to the mainland. Such is the Neck, so called, which connects Boston with the main land at Roxbury. But the word is applied to land of considerable extent, between seas; as the isthmus of Darien, which connects North and South America, and the isthmus between the Euxine and Caspian seas.” (Webster’s 1828, online version.)
There are dozens of more examples, but you get the idea. The English translation of the Book of Mormon, in describing the Land Southward, gives us the textbook and dictionary definition of a peninsula. Book of Mormon geography now makes a lot more sense. Why is there no mention of any land south of The Land of First Inheritance? There was none. How were the Nephites able to “hem in” the Lamanites in the “only in land of Nephi”? There was nowhere else to go. How were the Jaredites able to preserve the Land Southward as a game reserve? There was nowhere else for these animals to go. The Land Southward was “nearly surrounded by water,” and it means exactly that.
THE NARROW NECK
Webster’s definition of an “isthmus” is extremely important. I believe the reason the Book of Mormon uses “narrow neck” rather than “isthmus” is because the Land Southward is relatively small in area and is connected to the mainland by a narrow neck. John Sorenson, in discussing the Line Bountiful wrote that it “was well-known among [the] people that it was ‘the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite’ across the isthmus.” Sorenson readily admits “[his] model was tainted by preconceptions” (The Geography of Book of Mormon Events, pp. 209-210), and among those preconceptions, I think we can reasonably conclude, was the belief that Book of Mormon events took place in Central America. But Sorenson was incorrect. He made the understandable mistake of assuming that Bountiful was on the isthmus rather than connected to the Land Northward by the isthmus.
Webster mentioned Boston, so I decided to look up a Colonial-era map and I was surprised to find that the land Boston now stands on was originally smaller and was, in fact, a peninsula:
I suspect the narrow neck of land which connected the Land Southward to the Land Northward was similar to the neck in Boston. (See also the Isthmus of Corinth, which joins Morea to Greece, and the Isthmus of Perekop which joins Crimea to Ukraine.) The Nephite narrow neck was not wide, certainly not as wide as the Isthmus of Darien (40 miles) proposed by W.W. Phelps or Isthmus of Tehuantepec (137 miles) proposed by Sorenson. I’d wager it’s anywhere from a few dozen yards to a quarter mile, if that. (Remember that we’re dealing with a very small area of land.) We read in Ether that the “narrow passage,” which I believe is the traversable part of the narrow neck, was at one point infested with poisonous snakes, preventing the Jaredites passage to the Land Southward. It was only when the snakes were eradicated that they had access to the Land Southward. Darien and Tehuantepec are sufficiently wide that a traveling party could have simply gone around the snakes. The narrow neck is also small enough that by setting up a defensive line (The Line Bountiful) south of the narrow neck that extended from the Sea East to the Sea West (likely no more than 15 miles), the Nephites were able to effectively cut off the Lamanites from heading into the Land Northward.
Mormon gives us some additional details regarding the narrow neck,
“And it came to pass that Hagoth, he being ancurious man, therefore he went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship, on the borders of the land , by the land Desolation, and launched it forth into the west sea, by the neck which led into the land northward.” (Alma 63:5.)
Here, again, we see that narrow neck joined the Land Southward and the Land Northward. I suspect one could stand in Bountiful and see Desolation very easily. Mormon later wrote,
“And the Lamanites did give unto us the land northward, yea, even to the narrow passage which led into the land southward. And we did give unto the Lamanites all the land southward. (Mormon 2:29)
Thomas Keith’s 1826 book, “A System of Geography,” includes illustrations
of a narrow neck, or isthmus; and shows how a sea “divides the land.”
“WHERE THE SEA DIVIDES THE LAND”
Moroni’s most important geographical description comes in describing the SeaWest which “divided the land,”
“And in the days of Lib theserpents were destroyed. Wherefore they did go into the land southward, to hunt food for the people of the land, for the land was covered with animals of the forest. And Lib also himself became a great . And they built a great city by the neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land.” (Ether 10:19-20).
Since the Book of Mormon interprets itself, we should look for another example of this language. Thankfully, earlier Moroni wrote,
“And now I proceed with my record; for behold, it came to pass that the Lord did bring Jared and his brethren forth even to that great sea which divideth the lands.” (Ether 2:13)
“That great sea” is the Mediterranean. In Numbers 34:6 we read, “And as for the western border, ye shall even have the great sea for a border: this shall be your west border.” Some modern translations actually use “Mediterranean” in this verse. So, the Mediterranean Sea and the body of water where Lib built a great city are topographically similar. Sorenson was of the opinion that the Book of Mormon Sea East and Sea West were the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, necessary for the Mesoamerican Model to work. Yet the Nephite writers refer to the ocean as “the great deep.” (See 2 Nephi 4:20 and Ether 2:25.) None of the Book of Mormon “seas” can be the ocean. If we refer to Thomas Keith’s A System of Geography, we find that “A Sea is a smaller collection of water nearly surrounded by land, and has a communication with another sea, or with the Ocean by means of a strait.”
Heartland proponents suggest the Book of Mormon seas are the Great Lakes. I think that’s a reasonable conclusion, but an incorrect one. The Great Lakes are landlocked. Lake Ontario is accessible from the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence River, but that’s a river, not a straight, and its hundreds of miles long. A sea that divides the land is a feature missing the from Mesoamerica. The Sea North and the Sea South are also missing from the Mesoamerican Model. To circumvent this issue, John E. Clark suggested,
“The reference to north and south seas fits nicely into the Mesoamerican scene as part of a metaphor for the whole earth and was probably used in a metaphorical sense in the Book of Mormon.” (FARMS Review: Vol. 1, Issue 1, pp. 20-70 A review of “Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon” by F. Richard Hauck Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 1989, p. 65).
William Hamblin later added,
“Thus, the minor and vague mentions of the north and south seas refer to the macrogeographical cosmic worldviews of seas surrounding the entire landmass, rather than specific identifiable bodies of water.” (“Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume – 2, Issue – 1, pp. 161-97, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 1993)
As we have demonstrated, the Land Southward was, in fact, surrounded by water. But rather than accept the reliability of Mormon’s descriptions, the North and South Seas are declared to be “metaphorical.” This kind of opens Pandora’s Box, however. If the seas are metaphors, why stop there? Could the narrow neck be a metaphor? Let’s go a step further and consider the possibility that the Book of Mormon itself a metaphor. Or, as some have put forth in recent years, an “inspired text,” but not an historical text.
“WE ARE UPON AN ISLE OF THE SEA”
One of the few geographical descriptions found in the early pages of the Book of Mormon comes from Jacob,
“And now, my beloved brethren, seeing that our merciful God has given us so great knowledge concerning these things, let us remember him, and lay aside our sins, and not hang down our heads, for we are not cast off; nevertheless, we have been But great are the promises of the Lord unto them who are upon the of the sea; wherefore as it says isles, there must needs be more than this, and they are inhabited also by our brethren. For behold, the Lord God has from time to time from the house of Israel, according to his will and pleasure. And now behold, the Lord remembereth all them who have been broken off, wherefore he remembereth us also.” (2 Nephi 10: 20-22)of the land of our inheritance; but we have been led to a , for the Lord has made the sea our , and we are upon an of the sea.
These verses puzzled me for a very long time. Why would Jacob say they were on an isle of the sea? Nephi and Jacob were students of Isaiah, and I wondered if perhaps he was drawing on the Isaiah 11:11,
“And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.”
Modern translations use “coastlands” instead of “isles,” and after a bit of research and help from people much smarter than I, discovered that in Isaiah 11 the “isles” or “coastlands” refer to “the Phoenician littoral on the eastern Mediterranean coast, or the islands of the eastern Aegean.” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, p. 1068.)
I spent some time thinking about this and let me suggest why I believe Jacob said they were on an isle of the sea. When the Nephites landed in the Land Southward, which is a peninsula, they were surrounded by water on three sides. So far as we know that first generation of Nephites never ventured north of the Land of Nephi. Their known world was that bottom half of the Land Southward. They didn’t know about Zarahemla or the narrow neck of land. From Jacob’s perspective, he was on an island. This is the human element of the Book of Mormon. I have been often guilty in the past of treating the Book of Mormon as something bordering infallibility. I no longer think this way, and this is OK because the book itself never claims to be infallible. I still believe it’s an historical record of a real people, but I’ve come to appreciate and even love the fact that it has errors and inconsistencies. Of course it does. (The Bible has far more, for what it’s worth). It was written by human beings with biases, worldviews, belief systems, etc., that may sometimes seem strange to modern readers. How strange will we look to people living a hundred years from now? This is also why stories of Joseph Smith treasure digging don’t bother me in the least. We are all products of our culture. And the first rule of history is to never judge past cultures by current standards.
At any rate, while reviewing my Ngram Viewer hits, I came across an interesting article published in 1850 about the founding of Jamestown. I can’t find the original source, but I did take a screenshot of it. It reads,
“Jamestown, founding by John Smith, as early as 1607, or thirteen years before the landing of the Puritans on the shores of New England, was, at that date in our story, the capital or seat of government for the colony of Virginia. It was built on a low, flat, marshy, insalubrious peninsula, formed by a point of land projecting into the James. This peninsula was only joined to the main land by a neck not over ten paces in breadth, and, being so nearly surround by water, was generally denominated an island by those who lived upon it.”
I believe that if we were to have landed with the Nephites, we would have believed we were on an island, too.
THE PROMISED LAND AND WHY MESOAMERICA FAILS
I think it’s safe to say that in LDS thought the United States of America is “Promised Land.” It’s the place God established so “the gospel could be restored,” or so I was told. But what is the Promised Land to Nephite? I mentioned to a friend that I wasn’t sure what the Promised Land referred to. Was it strictly the Nephite promised land? Was it colonial America? Was it all of the US of A? I eventually settled on the idea the Promised Land of the Book of Mormon isn’t the United States or even Colonial America. It’s that small patch of land the Nephites “did call the promised land.” The reason God established a free people in the Promised Land, according to Jesus, was to bring forth the Book of Mormon to the Remnant of Lehi, not to establish the United States, the constitution, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Nephi saw in his vision,
“manyof the Gentiles upon the ; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were before the Gentiles and were smitten. And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and the for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and , like unto my people before they were .” (1 Nephi 13:14).
According to the chapter heading, this refers to “the discovery and colonizing of America.” While at Bountiful, which is in the Land Southward, Jesus said,
“And blessed are the, because of their belief in me, in and of the Holy Ghost, which unto them of me and of the Father. Behold, because of their belief in me, saith the Father, and because of the unbelief of you, O house of Israel, in the shall the truth come unto the , that the fulness of these things shall be made known unto them. But wo, saith the Father, unto the of the Gentiles—for notwithstanding they have come forth upon the face of this land, and have my people who are of the house of Israel; and my people who are of the house of Israel have been from among them, and have been trodden under feet by them.” (3 Nephi 16:6-8).
(A quick observation. In LDS literature and media, you’ll often see reference to “Jesus Christ visiting the Americas.” Jesus didn’t appear in the “Americas” (plural). He appeared in a microscopic piece of land called Bountiful. I can only assume the Church, perhaps subconsciously, is trying to account for the Hemispheric Model—all of North and Central America. In LDS films, Jesus just about always appears in Cental American location. Is it possible Jesus appeared to other people in Central or South America? Sure, I guess so. But in the case of the Book of Mormon, I think it’s incorrect to claim Jesus visited the “Americas.”)
Jesus later added,
“And behold, this is the thing which I will give unto you for a sign—for verily I say unto you that For it is wisdom in the Father that they should be established in this land, and be set up as a people by the power of the Father, that these things might come forth from them unto a remnant of your seed, that the of the Father may be fulfilled which he hath covenanted with his people, O house of Israel; Therefore, when these works and the works which shall be wrought among you hereafter shall come forth the Gentiles, unto your which shall dwindle in unbelief because of iniquity.” (3 Nephi 21)these things which I declare unto you, and which I shall declare unto you hereafter of myself, and by the power of the Holy Ghost which shall be given unto you of the Father, shall be made known unto the Gentiles that they may know concerning this people who are a remnant of the house of Jacob, and concerning this my people who shall be scattered by them; Verily, verily, I say unto you, when these things shall be made unto them of the Father, and shall come forth of the Father, unto you;
Identifying the Gentiles is of paramount importance in understanding the Book of Mormon. Thankfully, the book tells us on the title page:
“Sealed by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time by way of the Gentile—The interpretation thereof by the gift of God.”
Joseph Smith and the early Saints were all descended from the British Isles. Joseph himself is of Irish decent. We learn from the text the Gentiles inhabit the same promised land as the Nephites. Therefore, Book of Mormon lands must account for the following,
- “Many multitudes of white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful” (1 Nephi 13:13) Gentiles “obtain[ing] the promised land for an inheritance.” (1 Nephi 13:14-15)
- The Gentiles being “established as a free people.” (3 Nephi 21:4)
- by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.” (1 Nephi 13:19)
- The Gentiles being “lifted up by the power of God above all other nations, upon the face of the land which is choice above all other lands, which is the land that the Lord God hath covenanted with thy father (Lehi) that his seed should have for the of their inheritance.” (1 Nephi 13:30)
There’s only one general area that meets these qualifications: New England. This alone is enough to eliminate the Mesoamerican model from contention as Book of Mormon lands. Full stop. Mesoamerica also lacks a “sea which divides the land” and a south-facing peninsula attached to the mainland by a narrow neck.
What about the Gentiles scattering the remnant of Lehi? That’s a complicated question and I don’t know the answer. In my post on Christopher Columbus Myth, I suggested the possibility of the “man among the Gentiles” could be John Eliot, who translated the Bible into the Algonquin language and was known as the “Apostle to the Indians.” Both the Pilgrims and Puritans landed in Massachusetts, and I suspect we might find an answer in a smaller, local event like the King Phillip’s War, primarily the result of the English Colonists desire for more and more land, rather than the Indian Removal Act of 1830,
“Beginning in 1675, European colonists engaged in a major war with Indigenous people in the region, which began a tragic time in the life of First Nations people of the Boston harbor region. It came to be known as King Philip’s War. King Philip was the name the English called Metacom, the Wampanoag sachem (chief). As Indigenous resistance intensified and more colonial villages were attacked and burned, the English fear of Native Americans grew. Prior to the start of the war a number of “praying towns” had been established within Massachusetts Bay (by John Eliot) where natives were tolerant of and living among their European neighbors. As colonial settlements expanded, many Native Americans were displaced to the “praying Indian” villages and towns. Some stayed in British colonial settlements, and still others continued in their traditional native communities.
“King Philip’s War had far-reaching and long-lasting effects on Native American communities in the region and on the relations between Indigenous people and Europeans. The significance of the islands during the war period is not due to battles fought there but because of the forced removal of Native Americans to the islands. During the winter of 1675-76, the Massachusetts Bay Colony decreed that the inhabitants of the “praying towns,” such as Natick, be relocated. On October 30, 1675, a large body of Christian Native Americans was forced in shackles to the Charles River and, on three vessels, transported to islands in the harbor. The majority of those relocated were taken to Deer Island where they were incarcerated. Later some Native Americans were forced to other islands, probably Peddocks Island, Long Island, and one of the Brewster islands. According to some Indigenous oral histories, many more islands were used by the Colonial government to hold Native Americans due to an increasing number of captives during the period.”
According to contemporary histories, “Indians [during the King Phillip’s War] were enslaved en masse and either distributed locally or sent overseas to a variety of destination.” That sure sounds a lot like Gentiles scattering a remnant of “this people.” I’m definitely not saying the Book of Mormon took place in the Massachusetts area, but I am saying that we should be looking for something like this. We need to be thinking smaller and more locally.
I’ve reviewed dozens of models which place the Book of Moron in Mesoamerica. I don’t immediately recall any of them mentioning the Promised Land or the Gentiles in or on the Promised Land. The spiritual promises and prophecies regarding the Gentiles mentioned above are just as important as the geography. They go hand-in-hand. The Mesoamerican Model doesn’t withstand scrutiny on either. It’s time to retire the Mesoamerican Hypothesis and focus time, money and efforts elsewhere.
WHY THE HEARTLAND MODEL FAILS
In short, it’s too big. In most of the Heartland Models I’ve seen, the Land of Zarahemla covers several US states, generally from Iowa to as far west as Colorado, down to Missouri. I saw one that stretches all the way to Louisiana. However, we have a pretty good idea how big the land of Zarahemla wasn’t found in Mosiah 1,
“Therefore, [King Benjamin] had Mosiah brought before him; and these are the words which he spake unto him, saying: My son, I would that ye should make a proclamation throughout all this land among all this, or the people of Zarahemla, and the people of Mosiah who dwell in the land, that thereby they may be gathered together; for on the morrow I shall proclaim unto this my people out of mine own mouth that thou art a and a ruler over this people, whom the Lord our God hath given us.” (Mosiah 1:10)
The entire land of Zarahemla is small enough that Mosiah was able to get everyone in the Land of Zarahemla to the temple to his father speak the next day. The Land of Zarahemla, at best, covers a few square miles and is likely even smaller.
As Mormon mentioned in Alma 22 and Helman 4, the Bountiful and Desolation (which were connected by the narrow neck), were “only” a day or day and half’s journey, or approximately 15 miles. They are also equidistant from the Sea West to the Sea East. Bountiful and Desolation in Heartland Models are hundreds of miles wide. It seems to me that Desolation was part of the mainland, but extended a bit into the sea before connecting to the Land Southward/Bountiful via the narrow neck.
Some models have Desolation covering the entire state of Michigan or reaching into Canada. However, as we read in the text, the scene of death at the tail end of the Jaredite civil war was such that “thereof went forth upon the face of the land, even upon all the face of the land; wherefore the people became troubled by day and by night, because of the scent thereof.” (Ether 14:23) I can’t imagine a scenario in which all of Michigan suffered from the smell of the dead. But if Desolation were a more confined land, then it’s much more plausible.
In most Heartland Models, the Land of Zarahemla and the Land of Bountiful (accommodating D&C 125) run east and west, rather than north and south.
And perhaps most importantly, in no map do we find the Land of Zarahemla and the Land of Bountiful “nearly surrounded by water.” It’s time to let the Heartland Model go, too.
SO, WHERE IS IT?
As I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t know. Identifying a specific location presents a number of difficulties. According to the text, the Promised Land was at one point under water. (Ether 13:2). Have the waters continued to recede? Or have they possibly risen? Glacial Lake Tonawanda once took up a significant portion of Western New York. It’s a small swamp now. The land Boston stands on now was once a hilly, forested peninsula 800 acres wide. It’s now 89 square miles. One of my favorite television shows is “How the Earth Was Made.” That show does a pretty good of demonstrating just how quickly things the earth can change, especially when dealing with water. It’s the most powerful force on the planet. It’s very possible that the Nephite Land Southward looks somewhat different today. (Despite the text informing us the entire face of the land changed, Mormon describes what he knows and sees. His descriptions are accurate for 400 AD.)
What about archeological evidence? We read in the text the Lamanites engaged in a scorched earth policy as they pursued the Nephites, who primarily built with wood, to Cumorah,
“But it came to pass that whatsoever lands we had passed by, and the inhabitants thereof were not gathered in, were destroyed by the Lamanites, and their towns, and villages, and cities were burned with fire; and thus three hundred and seventy and nine years passed away.” (Mormon 5:5).
If this is the case, we shouldn’t expect to find any ruins. Only when timber was scarce did the people in the Land Northward build with “cement.” Cement, rarely used on its own, is primarily a binding agent (think “rubber cement”) and very different from the stone ruins we find in Central America. There is nothing in text to suggest the Nephites built elaborate stone pyramids. What about the remains of tens of thousands of people? Bones exposed to sunlight and oxygen will disappear in less than a decade. 1,400 years passed between the final battle of Cumorah and the publication of the Book of Mormon. That’s a very long time.
If I had to pick a place, I’d suggest somewhere along the East Coast of Colonial New England. Provided the topography is the same today as it was in 400 AD, we will find a peninsula and a narrow neck. While we know Bountiful and Desolation were about 15 miles wide, so far as I recall, we’re never given an idea about wide or long the Land of Nephi was, but I’d guess it’s much wider.
Joseph Smith didn’t know where the Book of Mormon events took place. This isn’t very surprising considering how unfamiliar he was with Book of Mormon doctrine. This continues to perplex me and is part of the reason why I’m doubtful the official translation account that’s been handed down to us is accurate. This is the question that keeps me up at night. I find it very interesting, however, that the majority of LDS academics disregard his recorded statements in order to uphold the Mesoamerican view. I have learned over the last decade or so that no amount of evidence will likely ever dissuade anyone from deeply held convictions and even less so when careers, reputations and financial interests are at stake.
The whole of Mormonism rides of the veracity of the Book of Mormon. It’s said that the Book of Mormon is the keystone our religion. If it’s not a historical record of a real people, then Joseph Smith was a fraud. If the Book of Mormon is a pious fraud, I will be disappointed, but life will go on. I, for one, believe it is an historical record of a real people. I have a vested interest in locating where these events took place. I believe Mormon has given us enough information that we can not only eliminate existing models, but also significantly narrow our search. If there are any readers out there experienced in cartography or illustration and can do me a solid, please contact me. I’d like to create a map based on this information in this post.
That said, I’d like to end with one final thought. Moroni writes that after the final battle at Cumorah,
“And now it came to pass that after theand tremendous battle at Cumorah, behold, the Nephites who had escaped into the country southward were hunted by the , until they were all destroyed.” (Mormon 8:2)
Just as I had with Moroni, I wondered why they couldn’t just keep going south. There’s a whole lot of land in Central America and America’s heartland. Then I thought, “Well, if the Land Southward were a peninsula and the Nephites who escaped were waterlocked, then it would have been pretty easy to hunt them down. Wait, is ‘waterlocked’ even a word?”
I opened Google, typed in “waterlocked” and my first hit, hand to God (you can try it for yourself) was the Miriam-Webster dictionary:
“Waterlocked: nearly surrounded by water.”
There are no accidental words in the Book of Mormon. The Land Southward, if such a place exists, is a peninsula.
I’ll start with the typo:
“I’ve reviewed dozens of models which place the Book of Moron in Mesoamerica.” <- Moron 🙂
On to what I like:
I like the idea of a southerly blocked peninsula. It isn't the only possible explanation, but it is a decent explanation for why all the Nephites who fled south were killed, as Moroni said. This is a score for the Florida and Baja theories. Keep in mind though that it could also be that the Nephites who fled south were slowed by dense forestation, unfamiliar terrain or a whole host of other things.
On the other side:
Reading journals of my ancestors in the 1800's they often reference a 3 day, 150 mile trip they would make on the regular. A Pony Express rider could make 75-100 miles in a day. Since a 1 or 1.5 day journey for a Nephite doesn't tell us if they used the horses and oxen, or if they were on foot, or even for sure if it is a group or a single traveler, we do not really get much from the statement.
The "Moroni question" is of absolutely no concern since Moroni had about 20 years to travel. A person could walk for 4 hours a day and make it from Panama to New York in 1 year. It is pretty goofy to think that Mormon hid the records at Cumorah NY so the Lamanites wouldn't get them, then he gives some of the plates to Moroni who then goes into "this north country" (which is the 18 miles of land between Lake Ontario and Cumorah) and then comes back and wanders around the hill for 20 years until he buries the plates there. (The side question is raised though of how Moroni got the story found in Ether. Mormon had hid up the records but gave a few plates to Moroni. Did Moroni get into the stash at Cumorah to get the account taken from the 24 plates for Ether or was it part of the "few plates"?)
As for the gentiles coming forth upon the face of this land, the gentiles came forth all over the hemisphere and smote and swept all over it. You may notice that European languages are dominant in both continents in the hemisphere. Many people from the USA are currently moving to Mexico because they find it to be a land of liberty more than the USA. The gentiles in this land did indeed have kings rule over them. "This land" can mean a lot of things. The Jaredites were dominant over the north country and were there for thousands of years before Lehi and Mulek showed up. We have no real idea how much of the land they covered. Personal ideas are constantly thrown into the text all over.
As an example of the personal readings, you give the narrow definition of "sea" but the text of the Book of Mormon disagrees with this smaller definition of sea. Nephi, the Jaredites and even the scripture you quote from Jacob say that they crossed the "sea" to get to this promised land.
Needless to say, I found this piece very thought provoking and I give you great kudos for it.