Critiquing a Critique: Responding to Rod Meldrum's Critique of John Sorenson's Methodology

I posted the following at a blog that had recently done a podcast with Rod Meldrum. Thus far, my comment has been essentially ignored. Now, I have no ax to grind with Meldrum, but I find that his claims typically don't stand up to scrutiny. Here, I dissect the Meldrum's critique of John L. Sorenson's method for doing Book of Mormon geography. When I first heard this critique I thought Meldrum had made an interesting point. When I decided to actually investigate it, I quickly found that Meldrum had played fast and loose with the facts. Remember that this was just a quick comment (long though it is). You can read my more formal critique here, where it is included in my lengthy aside on Book of Mormon geography (you'll have to scroll down a long ways to find it, or use the ctrl+G search function and type in "Rodney"). 

I listened to the first few minutes of the podcast, and have watched the YouTube video Prophecies and Promises. In both of these, Rod lays out his methodology for doing Book of Mormon geography. I do not feel he has proposed a superior method to Sorenson’s, and his attempt at critiquing the Sorenson method is wholly inadequate. I am going to try and spell out why.

Before going into that, I would simply like to state that I am an BoM enthusiasts who has spent sometime studying BoM geography. I currently advocate the Mesoamerican setting in general, and the Sorenson model specifically, but I am quite open to changing should a persuasive argument be made. This is not just my patronizing – I actually once did lean toward a different, non-Mesoamerican approach, and have given serious and honest consideration to every model that has come to my attention. So I am entirely open to changing my position.

First, here is how Sorenson’s method works: you gather all the information in the Book of Mormon on geography, and prepare an “internal map” (what Meldrum calls a “hypothetical map”). This is a very practical approach. What it does is allow you to understand the geo-spacial relationships of all the seas, rivers, mountains, valleys, cities, etc. Once you have done that, Sorenson suggests using that map as the criteria for finding the real world setting. Again, this is very practical. It only makes sense, that wherever these events took place, Mormon’s description of that setting will match that location.

Meldrum has attempted to lay the heap of confusion regarding Book of Mormon geography at the feet of this method. In the above podcast he says that this is “Book of Mormon geography methodology in general.” This is simply not true. Meldrum claims that there are over 150 of BoM geographies based on this method. I highly doubt that. Meldrum has not given us anyway to track down these all of these geographies so that we can check for ourselves, but he says that they range from the whole western hemisphere to a very small 60 x 90 mi range around the Hill Cumorah in New York, to Mayalsia. That alone should tell us that these are not all Sorenson-method maps because his method would not allow such vast differences in distance interpretations. In the YouTube video, he first Quotes from Sorenson’s book Mormon’s Map, where Sorenson states “At least eighty versions of a Book of Mormon map have been produced.” From there, Meldrum again makes the undocumated claim that there are actually 150. This is leads me to believe that Sorenson’s 80 are meant to be encompassed by Meldrum’s 150, and so this gives us a place to start. The very next line (which Meldrum omits in his video presenation without an ellipses) in Sorenson’s book explains that these are not all based on his internal-to-external approach: “Most start with the writer confidently identifying some American area as the center where the Nephites lived and then distributing cities, lands, or other features named in the text to more or less agree with the original “solution”.” So most of the maps Sorenson is talking about started with a specific place in mind, and then simply interpreted the text to fit that location, rather than first coming to understand what the text says. But we can learn even more. Sorenson gives a footnote, where he tells the reader that they can find documented information on 70 of the 80 maps in another book of his called The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book. This includes detailed information on each of the models, along with a whole bunch of very useful information for anyone who wants to get involved in BoM geography (whether you agree with Sorenson’s approach or model or not). Here are a few things you can learn by comparing the models in Sorenson’s source book:

1. The very first “interal map” was created in 1938. 16 of the 70 maps analyzed there pre-date 1938, and therefore cannot be included in the number of “hypothetical maps” that have resulted from the Sorenson method.

2. Meldrum has stated that Sorenson “outlined and established” this method, which is more or less correct. Therefore, it is highly significant that 28 of the proposals pre-date Sorenson’s own proposal, when Sorenson’s proposal is dated to 1955 (as Sorenson dates it in his source book). If we move Sorenson’s proposal to the year it was actually published (1985), when it would have actually been in general circulation, then 51 of them pre-date Sorenson’s. Clearly, Sorenson’s method can’t be held responsible for the maps produced BEFORE he even published his method.

3. Nine of the maps are “internal only,” meaning no effort was ever made to correlate them to the real world. Most internal maps are generally consistent with each other, though there are minor variances. I am confident that if any of these 9 maps were used to correlate to the real world, they would lead to the same location.

4. 50 of these maps are external only, meaning that an internal map was never constructed. These would clearly be the “most” that Sorenson is talking about, which simply pick an area and arrange BoM toponyms to “fit” that proposed area.

5. Taking away the 9 and the 50, we are left with only 11 “internal-to-external” correlations. But even that number over represents the situation. 8 of these are “minimal” either in there correlation to the real world, or total composition. For example, one is a fairly detailed internal map, but only vague and general comparisons are made to the real world, while two others are so sparse in details (both internal and external) that they are called “skeletal.” This means that only 3 detailed internal-to-external maps have been made.

6. Of those three, one actually pre-dates Sorenson, and it not a theory presently advocated (so far as I am aware). One is Sorenson’s, and the other is F. Richard Hauck’s. John E. Clark thoroughly reivewed Hauk’s geography, constructing his own internal map and then comparing it to Hauk’s model. Hauk’s model failed, but Clark’s map was remarkably similar to Sorenson’s (Clark made his map independent of Sorenson, and lays out his reasoning in his review). Thus, out of the 70 that can be clearly documented, only Sorenson’s actually stands up to the test of a comprehensive internal map.

Is that true of all 150 maps Meldrum claims exist? Again, since I have no way of tracing those, I don’t know. But I will say this: I have yet to find another proposed geography that holds up against a comprehensive internal map – and I have looked. The onus is on Meldrum to provide even one specific example of another geography that is based on the Sorenson method and is substantially different – in my searches for such a map, I have come up completely empty.

Meldrum says (in the podcast), “if you have a proper scientific method of conducting research, it should tend to limit the number of possible outcomes, not expand them.” Well, as I look at the Sorenson method, I find that it does just that. Meldrum throws out a bunch of numbers and such to make it seem otherwise, but having looked closely at as many proposed geographies as I could find, I have discovered that only one holds up to the Sorenson methodology, and that is (surprise, surprise) the Sorenson model.
You see, the problem is NOT that Sorenson’s method allows for so many different possibilities. The problem is that everybody and their dog who wants to jump into the BoM geography game simply ignores his carefully outlined methodology and goes about things in a completely different way. Meldrum, in my opinion, is just another one of these.

Now, as far as I am concerned, Sorenson’s methodology is the most sound, and if any theory for the BoM real-world setting does not fit the texts details in geography, then any and all other evidence is irrelevant. We can find fortresses and armor all over the world, along with other martial remains that would be consistent with what the BoM says. But none of these mean anything about where the BoM took place if the mountains are not where the texts says the mountains are, valleys are not where the texts says they are, rivers, seas, etc. aren’t there either. We must start with the geography, and go from there. I find that Meldrum’s theory does not fit the geography, so that is the end of the story – nothing else matters.

Meldrum seems to boast that “98%” of people, after hearing his presentation, are convinced. I’m guessing that those 98% only have the information Meldrum has given them. I’ll tell you that if I didn’t already know what I knew about the history of Book of Mormon geography debates, I probably would have been persuaded. But knowing what I knew, and having access to the resources to check on some of his claims, I quickly found that his whole critique of the Sorenson method is nothing more than a straw man. He misrepresents the amount of confusion, and he misrepresents the source of the confusion.

Now, all this is only my take. I wouldn’t expect you to just take my word for it. Do some of your own research. Go ahead and read/listen to/watch what Meldrum has said. But I wouldn’t just take his word lying down. Probe his claims, and see for yourself how well they hold up. I obviously haven’t done this for every detail, but on the claims of his I have examined, they haven’t held up.