Skip to main content

Getting to the Heart 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 altar 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.

Comments

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

    Peace and blessing,
    Roger

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Nephite History in Context 1: Jerusalem Chronicle

Editor’s Note: This is the first contribution to my new series Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon. Check out the really cool (and official, citable) PDF version here. To learn more about this series, read the introduction here. To find other posts in the series, see here
Jerusalem Chronicle (ABC 5/BM 21946)
Background
The so-called “Babylonian Chronicles” are an important collection of brief historical reports from Mesopotamia, found in Iraq in the late-19th century.1 They are written on clay tablets in Akkadian using cuneiform script, and cover much of the first millennium BC, although several tablets are missing or severely damaged, leaving gaps in the record. One tablet, colloquially known as the “Jerusalem Chronicle” (ABC 5/BM 21946),2 provides brief annal-like reports of the early reign of Nebuchadrezzar II (biblical Nebuchadnezzar), including mention of his invasion of Jerusalem.
Biblical sources report that King Jehoiac…

Nephite History in Context 2a: Apocryphon of Jeremiah

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of the second contribution to my new series Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon. Check out the really cool (and official, citable) PDF version here. To learn more about this series, read the introduction here. To find other posts in the series, see here
Apocryphon of Jeremiah (4Q385a)
Background
Between 1947 and 1956, a few well preserved scrolls and tens of thousands of broken fragments were found scattered across eleven different caves along the northwest shores of the Dead Sea near Qumran. Now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, they are arguably the most significant discovery ever made for the study of the Bible and the origins of Judaism and Christianity. Among the writings found are the earliest copies of nearly every Old Testament book, many of the known apocryphal and pseudepigraphic works, and several other texts discovered for the first time at Qumran. Altogether, more than 900 differe…

Nephite History in Context 2b: Letters of ʿAbdu-Ḫeba of Jerusalem (EA 285–290)

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of the second contribution to my new series Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon. Check out the really cool (and official, citable) PDF version here. To learn more about this series, read the introduction here. To find other posts in the series, see here.
Letters of ʿAbdu-Ḫeba of Jerusalem (EA 285–290)
Background
The Amarna Letters make up the bulk of the 382 cuneiform tablets found at Amarna, Egypt in 1887. The letters date to the mid-fourteenth century BC (ca. 1365–1335 bc), with most of them coming from the reign of Akhenaten (ca. 1352–1336 bc), though some date to the reigns of Amenhotep III (ca. 1390–1352 bc) and perhaps Smenkhkara (ca. 1338–1336 bc) and Tutankhamun (ca. 1336–1327 bc). The collection includes international correspondence between Egypt and other nations, such as Assyria and Babylonia, but most of the letters are to and from vassal kings in the Syria-Palestine region, whic…