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Models and Methods in Book of Mormon Geography: The Peruvian Model as a Test-Case

Update 1/28/2014: A substantially expanded version of this post has been posted to the Interpreter Blog.

Over the last couple of years, one of the many things I have dabbled in off-and-on has had to do with the methodologies employed by those who develop New World Book of Mormon geographies. There is obviously a lot of diversity of opinion on this topic, and certain proponents have blamed all this confusion on there being inadequate information in the text, or on the methodology followed by a select few, as if it were the dominate methodology. The reality is that the diversity of opinions is the result of a diversity of methods.

In general, there are three basic groups into which the various methods fall:
  1. Geographic priority: Those who hold that the geographic data in the text is the most important, though they will usually also value archaeological data, they will hold it as secondary to making sure the mountains, seas, valleys, and rivers fit the geography of the text. Some may also regard the words of Joseph Smith, perhaps along with other leaders, as relevant, but again, the geographic data takes priority.
  2. Archaeological priority: Those who believe archaeological and anthropological evidence compared to the cultural data in the text should be our guiding light, and that we should turn to geography only after we have found a civilization that matches that found in the Book of Mormon, after which we should let the physical lay of the land influence how we conceptualize Book of Mormon geography. Some of these may also regard the words of Joseph Smith or other leaders as key indicators, but not as more important than the archaeology.       
  3. Prophetic priority: Those who believe that the words of Joseph Smith, other leaders, or the “prophecies and promises” in the Book of Mormon are our most important evidence and that archaeology, geography, and everything else takes a back seat to them.

All those who fall into one category on another do not necessarily follow the same method—they just place priority on the same kind of evidence. From there, they can be quite different, and reach vastly different conclusions.

One of those I would classify as an archaeological priority based model is the Peruvian model advocated by George Potter. Potter writes:

One common argument for the Book of Mormon having taken place in Mesoamerica is that it uniquely matches the book’s geographic context. Actually, the Book of Mormon contains very little geographical information from which to draw a definitive conclusion as to where the event within it took place. As a result, many other equally logical geographic models for the Book of Mormon lands have been formulated.[1]
Potter elaborates, arguing, “For scholars or anyone else to claim that they have found a region that uniquely matches the geographical clues in the Book of Mormon, they can only do so based on very strong assumptions; that is, they complete their maps by filling in their own ideas ‘between the lines’ in the sacred record.”[2]

Potter’s own geographic configuration is quite full of strong assumptions, which not only read things into the text, but ignores the text almost completely, but more on that in a moment. Having insisted that the geographic information in the text is too limited to help us locate Book of Mormon lands, Potter then proceeds to argue that archaeological and anthropological evidence should be our guiding light. He writes:

Using odd concepts such as “internal logical” or “geographic templates,” Book of Mormon scholars have concocted self-defined theory after theory of where the Nephites once lived; however, they have done so while completely ignoring the obvious body of evidence that would actually identify where the Nephites once lived with their metals, ships, herds, flocks, grains, all manner of cloth, and, most important, the tradition of a visitation of a white god in the form of a man.[3]
“Indeed,” he says, “a growing body of archaeological and anthropological evidence from South America overwhelmingly favors the book.”[4]

The inherent problem in using archaeological and anthropological evidence as the key evidence is that it is always incomplete and changing. John E. Clark—a seasoned and experienced archaeologist, mind you—has explained, “It has been my experience that most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when confronted with a Book of Mormon geography, worry about the wrong things.” He continues:

Almost invariably the first question that arises is whether the geography fits the archaeology of the proposed area. This should be our second question, the first being whether the geography fits the facts of the Book of Mormon—a question we all can answer without being versed in American archaeology. Only after a given geography reconciles all of the significant geographic details given in the Book of Mormon does the question of archaeological and historical detail merit attention. The Book of Mormon must be the final and most important arbiter in deciding the correctness of a given geography; otherwise we will be forever hostage to the shifting sands of expert opinion.[5]
 Geography provides us a rather permanent set of landmarks from which to compare the Book of Mormon text: mountains, valleys, rivers, and seas should be arranged in a way that actually fits the text. Archaeology does not hold this same advantage. In fact, Potter himself admits, “Today’s archaeology might contradict an element of the Book of Mormon history; however, that does not mean that in another twenty years the reverse might not be the case.”[6] While this admission is candid, it does little to instill confidence in his criticisms over the archaeological and anthropological inadequacy of the Mesoamerican area. After all, couldn’t the situation reverse itself in another 20 years?

But what of Potter’s claim that the geographic information in the text is far too limited to really distinguish between the different models, which are all “equally logical” on geographic grounds? We can test this against Potter’s own model.

First, there is the issue of just how much geographic data Potter utilizes from the Book of Mormon text. I haven’t scoured the whole book, but his chapter dedicated to actually fleshing out Book of Mormon geography only makes reference to scripture passages 88 times.[7] That number was derived by simply counting every scripture reference I could find. It doesn’t weed out (as it should) repeated references to the same verse(s), or references found within quotations from other sources. Also note that some references are so vague as to be worthless.[8] I would guess that the actual number of passages utilized by Potter to flesh out his geography (at least, in this one chapter dedicated to such an exercise) is below 70, perhaps even under 60. Compare that to the 600+ that John L. Sorenson draws on to develop his geography, or the 300+ that John E. Clark has used to develop one.[9] Randall P. Spackman has not developed his own geography, but in comparing the passages Sorenson uses against those used by Clark, he determined that there are at least 1068 passages relevant to Book of Mormon geography.[10] So when fleshing out Nephite geography, Potter utilizes less than 10% of the available geographic data in the Book of Mormon. So, this evokes the question: is it really that there isn’t enough data, or is it that Potter just isn’t looking at all the data?

At the end of this chapter, Potter writes: “The few geographic clues we have of the Book of Mormon lands, all clearly fit comfortably into a geopolitical setting that archaeologists have established for a New World region.”[11] It would be more correct to say that the few geographic clues the he has used in that chapter all clearly fit into a geopolitical setting that he has interpreted them to fit into. If we take a closer look at his geography, it quickly fails under the scrutiny of more Book of Mormon data.

Let’s take just one correlation: the land/city of Nephi. Potter places the land of Nephi north of Zarahemla. “Pukara is south of Cuzco, which is how Zarahemla was situated in reference to the city of Nephi.”[12] Despite this arrangement, Potter does divide the Nephites and Lamanites along north/south lines. He writes:

The Lamanite king we know as the father of Lamoni lived at the same time as the Pukare Empire. The Book of Mormon states the Lamanites during his reign inhabited the lands southward and describes how Zarahemla was separated from the lands he controlled:
The king sent a proclamation throughout all the land, amongst all his people who were in all his land, who were in all the regions round about, which was bordering even to the sea, on the east and on the west, and which was divided from the land of Zarahemla by a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west, and round about on the borders [mountains] of the seashore, and the borders of the wilderness which was on the north by the land of Zarahemla, through the borders [mountains] of Manti, by the head of the {river} Sidon, running {from} the east towards the west—and thus were the Lamanites and the Nephites divided. (Alma 22:27; emphasis added)[13]
So Potter understands that this passage indicates that Zarahemla is north of the land ruled by Lamoni’s father, the Lamanite king.[14] But Potter does not mention that this land is unambiguously identified as the land of Nephi in the first verse of the chapter: “Aaron… was led by the Spirit to the land of Nephi, even to the house of the king which was over all the land… and he was the father of Lamoni” (Alma 22:1).

Potter tries to argue that the text has the land of Nephi as being north of Zarahemla as follows: “Zarahemla being located south of the City of Nephi is confirmed in the Book of Helaman when Nephi, son of Helaman, goes to the land of Nephi to preach the gospel to the Lamanites (Helaman 5:20), and later returns to Zarahelma ‘from the land northward’ (Helaman 7:1).”[15] In using Helaman 5:20 and 7:1, however, Potter obscures the fact that in Helaman 6, we learn that after Nephi and Lehi had a very successful mission in the land of Nephi, thanks to some impressive miracles, the converted Lamanites first “did come down into the land of Zarahemla,” (Helaman 6:4) and then they, “did go into the land northward; and also Nephi and Lehi went into the land northward, to preach unto the people” (Helaman 6:6). So Helaman 7:1 is not about Nephi and Lehi returning from the land of Nephi—they had followed their converts north out of the land of Nephi, first stopping in Zarahemla, and then going even further, up into the land northward.

So, the lesson here is that there is a lot more geographic information in the Book of Mormon than Potter seems to think there is. What’s more, it is enough to at least rule out his own geographic model. I find it telling that, so far in my search, all major advocates of geographic priority methods—which includes Clark,[16] Sorenson,[17] F. Richard Hauck,[18] and V. Garth Norman[19]—while differing in many details, are unanimous that only Mesoamerica fits the geographic details of the text. Such agreement cannot be found in either the archaeological priority camp—which includes Potter, a South American advocate, and Mesoamerican advocates Joseph L. and Blake J. Allen,[20] along with their editor, Ted Dee Stoddard[21]—or the prophetic priority camp—which includes John L. Lund,[22] a Mesoamerican advocate, and Rod Meldrum,[23] promoter of the “heartland” model of North America. Perhaps the geographic details are more compelling than some think.

[1] George Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land: More Evidences That the Book of Mormon Is a True History (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2009), 1.
[2] Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 1–2.
[3] Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 12.
[4] Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, xii.
[5] John E. Clark, “A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 1 (1989): 21; reprinted as John E. Clark, “Revisiting ‘A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies’,” Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011): 13–14.
[6] Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, xviii.
[7] See Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 71–95.
[8] On Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 77, there is a reference to Alma 27–54—a whole 27 chapters! Just what I am supposed to find in there?
[9] See John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 17, 119; Clark, “A Key,” 21–70; reprinted as “Revisiting ‘A Key’,” 13–43.
[10] See Randall P. Spackman, “Interpreting Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review 15/1 (2003): 26-29. He counts 1,068 relevant verses using John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Map (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), and John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), plus Clark’s “A Key,” and eliminating duplicates.
[11] Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 95.
[12] Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 85; also see p. 94 and maps on p. 13, 83, 93.
[13] Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 85. Italics and square brackets in Alma 22:27 are Potter’s. The {fancy} brackets are mine and represent words omitted by Potter without ellipses (probably just typo’s).
[14] Lest there be any doubt about this, see the maps on Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 68, 84, and 93, as well as his acknowledgment on p. 94 that Clark is correct in stating “The land southward was divided by a ‘narrow strip of wilderness’ that ran from the ‘sea east’ to the ‘sea west’ (Alma 22:32) [correct]. Nephites occupied the land on the north of this wilderness, and the Lamanites, that to the south [correct;…].” (Clark, as quoted by Potter, with Potter’s bracketed comments; ellipses mine.)
[15] Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 85.
[16] In addition to the works already cited by Clark, see John E. Clark, “Geography,” in To All the World: The Book of Mormon Articles from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Daniel H. Ludlow, S. Kent Brown, and John W. Welch, eds. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 97–101.
[17] In addition to the works already cited by Sorenson, see John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985).
[18] See F. Richard Hauck, Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1988).
[19] See V. Garth Norman, Book of Mormon—Mesoamerican Geography: History Study Map (American Fork, UT: ARCON Inc. and the Ancient America Foundation, 2008).
[20] See Joseph Lovell Allen and Blake Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, rev. ed. (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2011).
[21] See Ted Dee Stoddard, “A Note from the Editor,” in Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands; Ted Dee Stoddard, “Critical Criteria for Identifying the New World Lands of the Book of Mormon: Implications for the Heartland Model and the Mesoamerica Model,” at (accessed January 17, 2014).
[22] See John L. Lund, Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon: Is This the Place? (The Communications Company, 2007); John L. Lund, Joseph Smith and the Geography of the Book of Mormon (The Communications Company, 2012).
[23] See Bruce Porter and Rod Meldrum, Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America (Mendon, NY: Digital Legends, 2009).


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