Getting to the Heart of the Divide on Book of Mormon Geography

Hill Cumorah Monument, New York

In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on the oft-times acrimonious debate between Heartlanders and Mesoamericanists, especially in the wake of my friend Stephen Smoot’s recent post about Letter 7. I am not sure I have anything particularly profound to offer on the subject; the reality is I and many others have long realized that both sides are talking past each other, and both sides likely blame the other for that impasse. But I would like to proffer a question that, I think, helps cut through all the noise and gets to the heart of the matter.

Imagine, for a second, archaeologists down in Veracruz, Mexico, made an absolutely astounding discovery: a stela, dated to the late-4th century (i.e., AD 350–400), written by a ruler in the area boasting of how he had utterly destroyed a people called the Nephites at a nearby place called Cumorah. There’s no question about the authenticity of this find, and there is no doubt about the translation.

Now the question: is Joseph Smith vindicated or proven a fraud by such a sensational discovery?

I think for most people (hopefully everyone?), it’s obvious that such a find would vindicate the prophet Joseph Smith, and by extension, his successors. The truth claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be greatly bolstered by this discovery.

But, it does mean that Cumorah is in Mexico—that Oliver Cowdery in Letter 7 is wrong; Joseph Feilding Smith, wrong, along with everyone else who casually passed on the tradition that the Nephites died in New York. And I am not sure Heartlanders would be OK with that.

You see, for years the way they have framed this discussion is that it’s either the scholars—the “M2C intellectuals”—or the prophets who support Cumorah in New York, and you’ve gotta choose one or the other. The result of this kind of talk is that belief in the “right” Cumorah—the one the prophets support—effectively (if not explicitly) becomes a sort of article of faith, a point of doctrine, for Heartlanders.* Mesoamericanists, in this view, are undermining the prophets by teaching that the Cumorah where the Nephites died was in Mexico.

But must Joseph Smith’s contemporaries, and everyone else whose passed on the tradition since, be right about the location of Cumorah in order for the Book of Mormon and the Church to be true? Clearly, if there was a real Cumorah, and real Nephites who fought there under a commander named Mormon and his son Moroni ca. AD 385, then the Book of Mormon is true—no matter if that real place is in New York, Mexico, Peru, or even Alaska!

I, for one, would welcome definitive evidence for the final battle of the Nephites from anywhere in the Americas—certainly from the area near the New York Cumorah—and would gladly adjust my views on Book of Mormon geography accordingly. What a wonderful boon for faith and missionary work such evidence could be!

You see, for most Mesoamericanists (myself included) questions about the where the Nephites lived and died are not so much an issue of doctrine, but simply an interesting historical question. They lived where they lived—and no doctrinal pronouncement can alter or change that. So in trying to figure out where the final battles took place, or whether the hill in New York is the Nephites’ Cumorah or not, we approach it with the tools of the scholar. Not because we repudiate the prophets—again, valid evidence for the Book of Mormon can only vindicate Joseph Smith and his successor prophets—but because the most appropriate tools to use in answering a historical question is to “consult the works of recognized, thoughtful, and faithful LDS scholars,” as President Ballard has taught.

And thus we see that the two sides are operating on entirely different paradigms: the one (Heartlander) on the doctrinal paradigm, and thus insisting that the prophets are the authorities on the subject, the other on a historical paradigm, and so naturally insisting that it is scholarship that should be used here. And thus we see the impasse.

Until both sides can begin operating on the same paradigm, no productive dialogue will ever possible. One way for that to happen would be for an actual, official revelation to be announced revealing where the lands of the Nephites were. Contra everything Heartlanders have said about Mesoamericanists, I know all the major proponents of the Mesoamerican view would readily set their own egos and models aside in the face of true revelation on the matter.

However, since the Church as no official doctrinal position on Book of Mormon geography, as far as I am concerned the only way to both get on the same paradigm is to agree that this is a historical question and thus both use the tools of the scholar to settle the matter. Think Cumorah is in New York? Great! Now make your case using rigorous textual analysis and valid archaeological evidence instead of trying to co-opt prophetic authority. And then allow that argument to be subject to critique on academic grounds, defend it from said critique, and so on.

I would absolutely love to see that happen. I am confident that real progress and agreement could be reached. But for those for whom the location of Cumorah is effectively an idol to be worshipped—and certainly never questioned—letting go of that golden calf will be hard. So I am not holding my breath.

*Because I know Heartlanders will take issue with this, let me clarify: I know that Heartlanders acknowledge the Church’s neutral position (though, I note that at least one Heartlander has been very vocal about arguing that the Church not neutral on Cumorah) with disclaimers in the beginning of their book, etc. I am sure they will deny making the location of Cumorah an article of faith or doctrinal issue. But whatever lipservice they pay to the Church’s neutral position, the rhetoric they use (prophets vs. scholars, etc.) produces the effect of treating it as a point of doctrine for them, Perhaps they don’t even realize that this what is happening, but it is, and it underlies much (if not all) of their arguments for their model.


  1. Thank you for this article. It helped me get the 10,000 ft view over the debate.

    Peace and blessing,



    In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey tells of an experiment a Harvard business professor conducted with a class. He split the class in two groups. To one he gave a photo of a young woman. To the other, the photo of an elderly woman. Then he displayed an image, which combined the two for the whole class to see.

    He then asked them to explain to the others what they saw. Their "debate" degenerated into an argument and became heated. It wasn't until it was pointed out to the two groups the common elements in the image. As they saw what the other group was seeing, both agreed. They both learned each was correct in the interpretation of what they saw.

    This is a classic example of the power of cognitive bias. We also see it in the ongoing climate debate where two camps are arguing for opposite sides of the debate. Each brings out their charts and research to support their positions. The same is happening with the ongoing debate between the Mesoamericanists and Heartlanders.


    You are correct in pointing out the two groups are arguing past each other because both groups are arguing from different paradigms. The Mesoamericanists, which in the context of your argument are the scholars, argue the only way to resolve the question is through scholarship. You in essence say, “I won't believe until you show me the scholarship."

    Through this rhetorical device, you portray Heartlanders as rubes who appeal only to questionable data to support their views. Was that your intent? If so, you succeeded. In the process you alienate Heartlander-leaning people and weaken your appeal for the two groups to come together.

    I’m not posting to convince you the Mesoamericanist position is invalid. I am pointing out your portrayal of Heartlanders is condescending and logically flawed. It’s clear from your writing, you view the Mesoamerican model as “settled science.” I disagree.

    Heartlanders look at the Hopewells as viable candidates for the Nephite/Lamanite cultures. They see the Adena/Olmec as potential candidates for the Jaredites. There are many questions about these cultures which need to be reconciled with the Book of Mormon. But the timing of the rise and fall of these cultures, not to mention the extent of their spheres of influence do match what’s in the Book of Mormon. Is that coincidence? Or is it scholarly evidence?


    Your appeal to scholarship as the final arbiter of the debate is hollow. Many anti-Mormon websites also appeal only to scholarship, much of it more widely accepted than that which supports the Mesoamerican model. So I do not see how scholarship alone will settle the debate.


    What is not up for debate is the value and teachings within the Book of Mormon. Heartlanders and Mesoamericanists both agree on this. I propose the best way forward is to start from that common ground and extend the debate using both scholarship AND revelation. We may never know in our lifetime the answer to this question. I'm confident when we both begin to see each other's point of view, the true picture will come into clearer focus.

    1. PS... I just read a blog post of Joseph Neville. What a revelation! I can understand your opinion of Heartlanders if he's who you think all Heartlanders are. He does not speak for me. He's like the carpenter, who having only a hammer, sees all challenges as nails. Please do not associate my willingness to consider the Heartlander model as agreeing with all of his positions on the topic.

  3. Neal,

    Nice post. I think you have targeted the question I think I would most like to see answered by proponents of the Heartland geography movement. Why do those who subscribe to the Heartland theory so often assert that their theory is supported by prophetic revelation/authority while the Mesoamerican theory is often described as a secular, borderline apostate theory? How do they accept the Church's stance of neutrality in one breath and then act as if certain Church leaders' opinions should be held as authoritative in the next, especially when there has been a wide spectrum of opinions from Church leaders in the past, and also when many statements from Church leaders have either directly or implicitly given some support to the Mesoamerican geography theory as well as the Heartland theory? In other words, it seems like they are claiming revelation for the Church that it doesn't claim for its self, and then leveraging these cherry picked, non-authoritative statements to support their own geographical opinions. I've never seen proponents of their theory attempt to reconcile this inconsistency in their approach. Perhaps they have loads of pages dedicated to this very topic (I don't really follow their movement), but I think you are certainly correct that this crucial point is really the crux of the debate.

    P.S. I think there should be an extra "of" in the title of your post: "Getting to the Heart [of] the Divide on Book of Mormon Geography"

    I think there is a missing "of" in the title.


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