Welcome to (the American) Jerusalem, I Hope You Like to Swim!: The Geography of Mormon’s Codex

As I anticipated, John L. Sorenson spends precious little time dwelling on geography in his massive tome, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book. He has spent probably more time than he wanted to laying out the comprehensive details of “Mormon’s map,” and I doubt that he is interested in rehashing everything on the topic now, at his age. Figuring out the geography merely for geographies sake is a pointless exercise. I suspect Dr. Sorenson would very much agree with Brant Gardner, who recently wrote,
The value of any geography should be its productivity for explaining the Book of Mormon, not for proving it… Geography is productive when the geography itself explains the events of the text. Geography is productive with an examination of the known history and culture of the peoples living in that area during Book of Mormon times elucidates why people acted in the ways that they did.

Speaking of Sorenson’s landmark volume, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Gardner says, “What moved it beyond an esoteric discussion of geography was that Sorenson used geography to ask more important questions about the people who lived on that geography and in that time.” Likewise, in Mormon’s Codex, Sorenson does not dwell of geography, spending even less time on it than he did in Ancient American Setting. Sorenson is clearly content with the work he has already done of the subject, and pretty much just summarizes it in essentially one chapter (Chapter 7). Sorenson opens his chapter on geography with the following:
Some 600 statements in the record reflect the lay of the promised land. When these statements are exhaustively examined, they reveal that Mormon and all the earlier record keepers shared all or parts of the same mental map of their land. Some writers were directly acquainted with more areas and more details about the geography than others, but their statements never contradict one another. This consistency of information indicates that the authors had firsthand experience of a specific physical scene. (p. 119)
Sorenson further notes, “Because of the consistency with which features of the internal geography are mentioned, the book holds out the prospect that we can discover the actual physical geography based on statements in the text. In that case we then may be able to identify where in the real world the events of the record were played out” (p. 120). Meticulous study of all those passages is a daunting and thankless task, but it is necessary in order to establish a place to start looking for the correspondences. So, Sorenson did it, and the resulting “Mormon’s map,” as he has been wont to call it, looks something like this:

Map 3 from Mormon’s Codex, John L. Sorenson © 2013.
Graphics by Curtis L. Sorenson

To get the full details as to how Sorenson came up with that map, readers will need to consult Mormon’s Map. To be up front, I have a quibble or two with this map, but nothing substantive or that alters the overall fit with Mesoamerica. Now, since over 600 passages are being brought together to produce this map, finding a real world location that matches technically counts as hundreds of correspondences. Archaeologist John E. Clark explained it this way:
The Book of Mormon account is remarkably consistent throughout…. We notice that the configuration of lands, seas, mountains, and other natural features in Mesoamerica are a tight fit with the internal requirements of the text. It is important to stress that finding any sector in the Americas that fits Book of Mormon specifications requires dealing with hundreds of mutually dependent variables. So rather than counting a credible geography as one correspondence, it actually counts for several hundred. The probability of guessing reams of details all correctly is zero.
When all the relevant information from the text is taken into consideration (something which, to date, no one besides Sorenson has done, so far as I can tell), we are really left with only one place to look for Book of Mormon lands: “no geographical correlation can qualify except Mesoamerica or a portion of it, for only there were large cities, major populations and wars, and books found anciently around an isthmus” (p. 120). But, not wishing to rehash all those details, Sorenson is content to summarize 22 points that correspond well with Mesoamerica, as shown on this map here:

Map 4 from Mormon’s Codex, John L. Sorenson © 2013.
Graphics by Curtis L. Sorenson

Sorenson explains the details of each of these correlations in Chapter 7 of the book. As I said, I do have a quibble or two with a couple of the details, but nonetheless I find the ultimate fit with Mesoamerica impressive. Of particular interest is a correlation Sorenson made decades ago, but which now seems more powerfully confirmed than before. I am talking about Lake Atitlan as the waters of Mormon (G on the maps above). I have mentioned before how since Sorenson made this identification, and supposed that the Lamanite city Jerusalem had sunk into these waters at the time of Christ, a submerged city was discovered decades later in about the right area. Sorenson writes more about this in the new volume:
In recent years the likelihood of this correlation has been strengthened by dramatic new archaeological information. Benítez and Samayoa first reported ruins of stone buildings under the waters of the lake. They dubbed the site “Samabaj.” The remains found were 55 feet (17 m) beneath the present surface of the water some 500 feet off the south shore. According to Dunn, the bottom shelves out beneath the water from the south side halfway across the lake, then drops precipitously, and it is on a portion of this shelf that Samabaj sits. 
The site contains a pyramid and at least 10 monuments (altars and uncarved stelae). The stelae are of the same type as those found at highland sites that date to the Middle and Late Pre-Classic periods (600 BC–AD 200). In their discussion of the remains, Medrano and Samayoa conclude that “because of the intact state of the [ruins at Samabaj] . . . , it is inferred that the level of the water rose suddenly, submerging the island [to which the site is confined] some 2,000 years ago.” Several hypotheses, all involving a volcanic event in the area, have been offered to explain this catastrophic rise in the lake level. Further underwater archaeological work is planned to clarify the habitation situation at that period. (pp. 133-135)
Lake Atitlan (the waters of Mormon?)
Fig. 7.1 from Mormon’s Codex, John L. Sorenson © 2013.
After reviewing the details of the Lamanite Jerusalem in the Book of Mormon, Sorenson concludes: “This correspondence is not simply an interesting minor parallel between text and nature; rather, it offers dramatic support for the overall geographical correlation that places the land of Nephi in highland southern Guatemala” (p. 135). While I would still urge caution in jumping to the conclusion that this is absolutely the Lamanite Jerusalem, nonetheless, as I have discussed before, that Sorenson’s model is even more supported now (due to finds like this one) than it was when first published back in 1985 is a strong indication that he’s found the right general area, at the very least, and perhaps even nailed down at least a few specific locations (like the waters of Mormon).

After reviewing the 22 correspondences found on the above maps, Sorenson concludes this chapter with these remarks:
Further general geographical correspondences could be explicated, but those already given are sufficient to demonstrate that the correspondences between Mormon’s text and the geography of Mesoamerica go far beyond coincidence. The correlation of both large-scale and localized geographical features between the two sources is so marked that geography has to be seen as a major class of confirmatory correspondences along with others presented in this book. It would have been impossible for a person not acquainted personally with conditions in the Mesoamerican area to produce an account that portrays the geography as Mormon’s book does. This complex of correspondences alone assures us that isthmian Mesoamerica was the scene where Book of Mormon history was played out (p. 143).
Earlier in the book, Sorenson made the observation, “It seems unlikely that this consistency could have been obtained unless the author(s) had directly experienced some particular real-world setting, not just an imaginary place” (p. 17). I have a hard time imagining Joseph Smith spitting out this story as rapidly as he did, and yet producing a coherent geographical picture, which just so happens to fit a real world location he was entirely unfamiliar with. Elsewhere, Sorenson made this same point: “The consistency cannot be accounted for in terms of Joseph Smith, for his translation of the volume was dictated at such a pace and published with so little revision of content that he could not have accurately crafted the picture of spatial relations involved in the complex story.” (Sorenson, Images of Ancient America, 188.)

Most readers today, even those who read the text slowly and study it carefully, often struggle to keep the geographic details straight or to visualize the spatial relationships of the various lands, cities, and waterways. Joseph Smith’s own remarks on Book of Mormon geography manifest that he was as confused as we are when we read the book. John E. Clark remarks, “it is becoming clear that Joseph Smith did not fully understand the geography, scope, historical scale, literary form, or cultural content of the book.” And why should he? He was a farm boy with a gift and mission from God, not a scholar of American (or Israeli) antiquities. Yet the book accurately describes matters such as geography, history, and culture, as Sorenson’s Mormon Codex makes evident.


  1. "When all the relevant information from the text is taken into consideration (something which, to date, no one besides Sorenson has done, so far as I can tell)...."

    Allen & Allen's "Exploring The Lands Of The Book of Mormon," (http://www.amazon.com/Exploring-Lands-Mormon-Joseph-Allen/dp/1608613623/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1382381694&sr=1-1&keywords=exploring+the+lands+of+the+book+of+mormon) while not as scholarly a work, does attempt the comprehensive comparison mentioned.

    1. Oh, yes, plenty of others have used the rhetoric of gathering ALL the relevant information and finding a match, etc. Typically, however, they fall short of the stated aims. Some may use a heck of a lot of it, or even all of it, but the problem comes when you pick a place before analyzing all the data from the Book of Mormon. These types will often use a small handful of proof-texts to define the "critiria" and then find the place they think fits (a place which their criteria was designed to select, usually) and then start using the rest of the data from the text to situate it in that place. The problem is, taking the data piece-by-piece, you can make it fit anywhere.

      This is what the Allens' do. They start with a few critiria, pick the place, and then do the rest piece-by-piece. Sorenson is the only one to ever gather ALL (or as much as possible... it is always possible he missed something, but since he is the only to try, who knows?) the relevant data and analyze it independent of any actual geography. He makes a map based on that and then finds a place that fits ALL of the information. To see just how extensive this process is, I recommend looking at his "The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book" (FARMS, 1992).


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