‘Until we have clearer knowledge’—On Book of Mormon geography in church history

02.01.2019 | Christopher Blythe

Christopher Blythe

Earlier this week LDS.org published an essay in the “Gospel Topics” series laying out the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the geographic location of the events recorded in the Book of Mormon. The short essay is worth a read, but I’ll quickly review it here and offer a few thoughts about how it maps onto previous Church discussions. It begins with a reference to the “internal consistency” in descriptions of setting and place in the Book of Mormon as one of the scripture’s “striking features.” It acknowledges the range of views taken on Book of Mormon geography by individual “members and leaders” throughout church history. Supposing that Joseph Smith would have the best information on this subject, the essay notes that he accepted evidence of Book of Mormon civilization in both North America and Central America. Finally, the essay notes that the Church has no official position (or revelation) on the subject beyond the Book of Mormon having taken place in the Americas. Importantly, what this statement did not say was that any one theory of the Book of Mormon’s setting was correct or incorrect. Rather, “The Church urges local leaders and members not to advocate theories of Book of Mormon geography in official Church settings.” My days at the Maxwell Institute are spent working on a book that will examine each of the major geographic models for the Book of Mormon. My goal isn’t to figure out which of these communities of theorists have the most accurate understanding. Instead, I’m asking why particular different theories have been attractive to different Latter-day Saints at different times. What I’ve discovered early in my research is that while in the twentieth and twenty-first century, discussion about Book of Mormon geography took a highly contentious turn, this was not the case in early Latter-day Saint culture. In Utah, the Saints saw themselves in Book of Mormon lands just like they had in Missouri. They didn’t place their general acceptance of a Hill Cumorah in New York against the evidence they saw in reports of Mesoamerican archaeology. While many members accepted the belief that Lehi had landed in modern Chile, no one questioned that the Hopi or the Utes were also descended from Israelite peoples. Today Latter-day Saints also hold many views on Book of Mormon geography, but with the advent of limited geographic models, there is an intensity behind this debate that was not present previously. I have yet to discover when Church leaders realized that mapping the Book of Mormon would require taking sides, but it was a subject of deliberations in the Church’s highest quorums in the 1920s. On February 23, 1923, the apostle James Talmage responded to Jean R. Driggs who had written to general authorities about his efforts to decipher the modern locations of Book of Mormon lands. Talmage did not discourage the pursuit, but urged that “the more capable workers we have in this field the better.” Continuing, Talmage wrote:
Somewhat over a year ago a committee of the Council of Twelve sat for days listening to the presentation of the subject of book of Mormon geography by several of our brethren who have given particular study to the subject, and we found that their views differed as widely as the continent. It was there and then decided that until we have clearer knowledge in the matter, the Church could not authorize or approve the issuance of any map, chart, or text, purporting to set forth demonstrated facts relating to Book of Mormon lands.1
The new Maxwell Institute Study Edition of the Book of Mormon includes a newly commissioned hypothetical map and, in accordance with this precedent, doesn’t identify a geographic location. (See it below.) The map is based on the close reading by John Sorenson and other scholars of the geographical markings in the text such as place names and distances. It is intended to help readers visualize various battles, missions, and other movements described in the text, but not to identify an exact location. Six years after Talmage’s letter, Anthony W. Ivins similarly stated in general conference that the Church had no official position on geography.
There is a great deal of talk about the geography of the Book of Mormon. Where was the land of Zarahemla? Where was the City of Zarahemla? and other geographic matters. It does not make any difference to us. There has never been anything yet set forth that definitely settles that question. So the Church says we are just waiting until we discover the truth. All kinds of theories have been advanced. I have talked with at least half a dozen men that have found the very place where the City of Zarahemla stood, and notwithstanding the fact that they profess to be Book of Mormon students, they vary a thousand miles apart in the places they have located. We do not offer any definite solution. As you study the Book of Mormon keep these things in mind and do not make definite statements concerning things that have not been proven in advance to be true.2
In other words, the Gospel Topics essay does not alter the century old policy of the Church to officially decline to take sides in the debate. In reading the immediate online response to the new essay, I noticed a few possible places where Latter-day Saints could misunderstand. I’m taken by how difficult the Church’s official position of not having an official position on Book of Mormon geography can be for Latter-day Saints. The essay asks us to be willing to consider the views of Church leaders as separate from the official views of the Church. This should be no surprise for Church members often familiar with Joseph Smith’s warning that “‘A Prophet is not always a Prophet’ only when he is acting as such”; but in application this is a difficult principle.3 The men who bear the mantle of “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” and local leaders are, like other members, able to speculate about matters that have yet to be revealed. The statement warns that the Church does not have an official position on Book of Mormon geography and that such positions should not be presented by leaders or members in official settings. While not all Latter-day Saints have a strong opinion on Book of Mormon geography, all members of the Church hold views, preferences, and passions that are not “officially” held by the Church. We should be careful in how and where we present these opinions. Can something be unofficial and also true? The answer is certainly “yes.” This becomes a problem when we force our personal opinions on others by declaring them “official.” The Gospel Topics essay does not discourage presenting one’s views on Book of Mormon geography in special symposium, on the web, or in personal conversation. In fact, it does not even discourage the monetization of Book of Mormon geography through book and video sales, tours, cruises, or conferences, however people feel about such endeavors. It only regulates official Church settings—Sunday services and so forth—and the claim that there is an official position. Finally, another way some Latter-day Saints have applied this and similar statements in the past is to assume that Book of Mormon geography is an unworthy cause. We—myself included—sometimes have a tendency to view those who have a deep commitment to one geographic model or another as “zealots.” To be sure, the recent Gospel Topics essay and President Ivins’s statement acknowledge that a testimony of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Mormon’s testimony of Jesus Christ is vastly more important than the exact setting of the text. Yet, there has also been a consistent respect among Church leaders for those who seek to find evidence of the Book of Mormon. With history as our guide, we see that although the Church doesn’t weigh in on the accuracy of specific sites or maps, that need not be seen as a deterrent for those who have found meaning and fulfillment in their search for ancient Nephite civilization. My forthcoming book will tell more of their stories.   NOTES 1. James Talmage, Letter to Jean R. Driggs, February 23, 1923, MS 1232, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. I am indebted to Ardis Parshall for sharing this source with me. 2. Anthony W. Ivins, Conference Report (April 1929), 16. A portion of this quote appears in “Book of Mormon Geography,” Gospel Topics Essay. 3. Joseph Smith, Journal, February 8, 1843, in Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, Richard Lloyd Anderson, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals 2:256. [Scroll to see both pages included in the PDF] [pdf-embedder url=”http://mi.byu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/MISE-BOM-MAP.pdf”]