The Book of Mormon critics have made an art of explaining a very big whole by a very small part. The game is to look for some mysterious person or document from which Joseph Smith might have got the few simple and obvious ideas and then cry triumphantly, “At last we have it! Now we know where the Book of Mormon came from!”
My attention was recently drawn to a comment on a Mormon blog that is currently growing in its popularity. The blog post was on Book of Mormon geography. One comment, by “Brent,” was somewhat interesting to me. He lays out a vague “local” model for Book of Mormon geography, then says:
So, does this “local” model conform exactly in every detail with Smith’s narrative? Of course not because his narrative is a fictitious blend of the real and the imaginary. But the local model does provide a basic structure upon which Smith’s miraculous fantasy tale can be built.
As for the “model” (if it can be called that) itself, Brent starts out by saying:
Book of Mormon geography? Look no farther than Smith’s own backyard. The region where he lived is replete with lakes, streams, and rivers as described in the Book of Mormon.
Here is a perfect case in point: This is so vague as to describe almost any patch of land on the planet, save massive deserts, such as the Mohave or Sahara. (Perhaps I should say any inhabitable patch of land?) While that is an exaggeration, it is not by much. This tells us nothing.
Additionally, the landscape in this region is covered with ancient and mysterious mounds and burial sites (possibly remnants of the Hopewell culture) indicating to the people living there in the early 19th century that, according to Ethan Smith (and many others) in his book View of the Hebrews, millions of inhabitants must have once dwelt there. No need for the Nephites and Lamanites (and Jaredites) to migrate thousands of miles from Central America to western New York for the final battle scenes and eventual deposition of the gold plates in the nearby Hill Cumorah/Ramah.
I’m not going to go into the Ethan Smith/View of the Hebrews stuff. That is an entirely different discussion. But this tells us pretty much nothing about BoM geography, except that his final comment—about the final battle scenes—suggests to me that he is not really all that well read on BoM geography. Virtually no one (and certainly not anybody taken seriously) is suggesting that BoM peoples traveled thousands of miles to the NY hill.
The narrow neck of land as described in various parts of the Book of Mormon conforms nicely with the Michigan Peninsula (although an adjacent narrow neck of land is also a good candidate), with an East Sea (Lake Huron, [throw in Lake Erie also if you'd like]) and a West Sea (Lake Michigan).
Sure, as long as we are staying generic, once again just about any “narrow” land flanked by large bodies of water will do. For what it is worth, though, the Michigan Peninsula does not connect a land north and a land south, as the BoM narrow neck does. It goes up north and then gets cut off. It is, after all, a peninsula. The narrow neck feature in the Book of Mormon almost certainly describes an isthmus. (And if we wanted to, we could further probe the details of the text and find several more problems with this supposed correltion.)
Also, this would suggest that his “local” model is largely west of where Joseph Smith actually lived. It is questionable, however, how familiar Joseph would have been with these western territories at the time the BoM text was being dictated. This really isn’t a very “local” model at all.
Since there is no description of the natural flora in the Book of Mormon, the region’s own trees and plants will do the job. And, of course, there are ample supplies of cattle, horse, swine herds and flocks as well as cultivated barley and other grains there. (But of course the Europeans brought them all).
Again, too generic to be of any value. Just about any “flora” could “do the job” with that kind of thinking. One is left wonder, however, if Joseph Smith is just creating some imaginary story based on his own environment and experience, where is the snow and bitter freezing winters of New York and New England in his tales? Particularly on New Year’s day, when the BoM has people suffering from heat exhaustion. That does not sound like the New Year’s day a 19th-century Yankee would be familiar with.
The region is expansive enough for all of the imaginary excursions, get-aways, migrations, and battle scenes described in the Book of Mormon. Thus it makes perfect sense to designate this region as the setting for the Book of Mormon; many problems are resolved in doing so.
Again, so generic I could say this about pretty much anywhere, aside from the resolving problems bit. But just what problems are resolved? And what about the problems it creates, that are just swept under the rug with his convenient little, “fictitious blend” bit?
He says that we need not look further than Joseph’s backyard for Book of Mormon geography, and even that it makes “perfect sense” to designate it as such. My question is, why are starting there in the first place, particularly since, as he admits, it does not fit exactly in every detail? Shouldn’t we see if there is a place that does fit exactly in every detail, or at least better in the details than Joseph’s backyard? What reason is there to prefer such an inexact match?
The only reason to start there is if you start with the assumption that Joseph Smith made it all up. Then, so long you remain both vague enough and creative enough, he is right, you’ll never have to leave. But that does not mean you have found the right spot, or demonstrated that Joseph Smith made it all up. It just means you are very good at confirming your own a priori assumptions (a tendency known as confirmation bias).
I am working on several projects right now. One of them is a comparative study of some 2 dozen BoM geography models and the methods employed to construct them. I’ll perhaps add more to the list before I am done. There is no question that, methodologically speaking, Sorenson is the most rigorous, and hence it is no surprise to find that his model also proves to be the best fit to both the text and the real world with the fewest anomalies. It certainly fits better than Joseph Smith’s backyard. The most important thing Sorenson got right is that you do not start in Joseph’s backyard, or even in Mesoamerica. You start in the Book of Mormon. You find out everything the book says about its geography and then you see if there is a place that fits the description. If no such place exists, then we have good reason to dismiss it as a real historical text, and this “fictitious blend” hypothesis might start to look appealing. But if there is a place that fits (and I believe that Sorenson’s Mesoamerican model, with a few adjustments, does indeed fit very well), then we have to seriously ask ourselves if it is reasonable to think that a “fictitious blend” of hundreds of details could really (a) produce a consistent enough picture to map out in the first place, and then (b) if it could, by chance, match a real world location with a high degree of accuracy. I don’t think either of those are likely should the BoM be false, but maybe that’s just me.