A Survey of Book of Mormon Geographical Thought
Excerpts from "Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon
By Joseph L., Allen, Ph.D.
It would not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens' ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon. Light cleaves to light and facts are supported by facts. The truth injures no one ....
(Times and Seasons 3:927)
Since the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, many attempts have been made, and continue to be made, to structure the Book of Mormon in a geographical setting. Some theories have been presented in dogmatic fashion, while others prescribe a tentative caution. The frustration has even caused many in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‑day Saints to ignore completely anything that has the appearance of Book of Mormon geography.
I suspect the change in my life has been taking place gradually as I have escorted hundreds of Latter‑day Saints on tours from New York to Peru. After years of research, study, and travel throughout the Americas, I came to the conclusion that understanding the possible cultures in which the Book of Mormon emerged has great value. Indeed, I felt that I would even be untrue to my personal convictions if I did not "search out of the best books and learn even by study and by faith." I came to the conclusion that the more we know about the history, culture, and geography of the Book of Mormon, the more we understand the Book of Mormon.
I subsequently eliminated Peru as the heartland of the Book of Mormon, since the archaeological evidence is minimal and the linguistics evidence is nil when compared to Mesoamerica. Nor does the archaeological time period correspond substantially with the Book of Mormon. Although Peru was my first love, I came to understand that the ruins of Machu Pichu and other Inca sites are post Book of Mormon. Peru shows evidence of minor cultures in existence during Book of Mormon time, but certainly not to the extent that the Book of Mormon seems to require‑and not to the extent of civilizations already discovered and documented in Mesoamerica.
Only when I satisfied myself that Mesoamerica, and only Mesoamerica, fits the prescribed cultural, linguistic, archaeological, and traditional patterns required by the Book of Mormon did I then feel comfortable in attempting to propose a geographical picture in relation to the Book of Mormon.
From that time forth, I have always tried to be true to two or three‑witness criteria. This statement simply means that if we make a Book of Mormon geographical hypothesis, we ought to test that hypothesis against the archaeological, cultural, and traditional history of the area. In the absence of these two or three witnesses, I feel that we stand on rather shaky ground. Furthermore, being true to the Book of Mormon text is imperative. That is, sites in relation to each other, directions in relation to each other, and distances in relation to each other must be scholastically reliable according to the text itself‑the Book of Mormon.
Any study of Book of Mormon geography must strictly adhere to criteria that do not alter the Book of Mormon text, the proposed map, nor established scientific dating systems. The location of lands, oceans, rivers, mountain ranges, and boundaries in relationship to distances and relative positions in the Book of Mormon must match.
Eleven years after the Book of Mormon was published, a book entitled Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan was written by John Lloyd Stephens. Accompanied by an artist named Frederick Catherwood, Stephens visited some of the known ancient ruins in Mesoamerica. His book not only caused a great deal of interest among the public at large but it also caught the attention of members of the Church at Nauvoo. The Church publication, Times and Seasons, commented on different occasions about Stephens’ work. Some of these comments are as follows:
Facts are stubborn things. From an extract from Stephens' "Incidents of Travel in Central America," it will be seen that the proof of the Nephites and Lamanites dwelling on this continent, according to the account of the Book of Mormon, is developing itself in a more satisfactory way than even the most sanguine believer in that revelation could have anticipated. It certainly affords us a gratification that the world of mankind does not enjoy, to give publicity to such important development of the remains and ruins of those mighty people. (Times and Seasons 3:921‑22)
Church publication also reported:
"Mr. Stephen's great developments of antiquities are made bare to the eyes of all people by reading the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. They lived about the narrow neck of Land, which now embraces Central America…Who would have dreamed that twelve years would have developed such incontrovertible testimony to the Book of Mormon? Surely the Lord worketh and none can hinder.
It would not be bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens' ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon. Light cleaves to light and facts are supported by facts. The truth injures no one…” (times and Seasons 3:927)
After the Saints arrived in the Salt Lakc Valley in 1847 and during the late I800s, very little additional information permeated from Mexico and Central America regarding their ancient civilizations...
The thinking that was representative of that era is summarized by Orson Pratt, as he outlined the historical setting of the Book of Mormon. His geographical philosophy became a part of the general Latter‑day Saint thinking for the next 100 years. He gave several talks on the subject commencing in 1868.
Pratt's basic geographical premise was that the entire North American continent was the Land Northward and the entire South American continent was the Land Southward. The Isthmus of Panama was designated as the Narrow Neck of Land. He proposed that Lehi landed near Valparaiso, Chile.
B. H. Roberts, a great champion of the Book of Mormon and a contemporary of George Reynolds, discussed the intercontinental movements of the Nephrites during the period of time from 600 BC to 46 BC and concluded that the Nephrites were confined to a relatively small area. He refers to the 55 BC migration of the Nephites into the Land Which Was Northward, and makes the following statement:
“Here it will be proper to dispel what I regard as a misapprehension of the extent of Nephite occupancy of the north continent at this period of Nephite history... there is no evidence, however, in the Book of Mormon that warrants such a conclusion as to the extent of Nephite occupancy of the western hemisphere in 46 B.C.
I conclude, therefore, that this migration of Nephites at this time extended no further northward than southern parts of mexico, say about the twenty‑second degree north latitude; in other words, the Nephites were occupying the old seat of Jareditc empire and civilization, and the land of Moron which the Nephites called "desolate." . . . (Roberts 2:199‑200)
However, the school of thought as reflected in the writings of Orson Pratt and George Reynolds seemed acceptable to most Church members and virtually became a "Mormon tradition."
In the late 1800s, a number of theories emerged that proposed contrasting geographical settings for the Book of Mormon. This type of environment prompted George Q. Cannon, a member of the First Presidency in 1890, to make the following statement: “There is a tendency, strongly manifested at the present time among some of the brethren, to study the geography of the Book of Mormon. We have heard of numerous lectures, illustrated by suggestive maps, being delivered on this subject during the present winter, generally under the auspices of the Improvement Societies and Sunday Schools....
We have been led to these thoughts from the fact that the brethren who lecture on the lands of the Nephites or the geography of the Book of Mormon are not united in their conclusions....
The First Presidency has often been asked to prepare some suggestive map illustrative of Nephite geography, but have never consented to do so. Nor are we acquainted with any of the Twelve Apostles who would undertake such a task. The reason is, that without further information they are not prepared even to suggest....
...We have strong objections to the introduction of maps and their circulation among our people who profess to give the location of the Nephite cities and settlements.” (Cannon 18‑19)
The statement of Cannon is still found in the educational literature of the Church today‑‑even in light of the fact that an abundance of knowledge has come forth regarding the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica. This attitude has developed a tendency among some Latter‑day Saints to ignore totally any study of Book of Mormon history and geography. Cannon concluded by supporting the idea of studying geography in relation to the time period of the Book of Mormon as follows: “Of course there can be no harm result from the study of the geography of this continent at the time it was settled by the Nephites, drawing all the information possible from the record which has been translated for our benefit.” (Ibid)
In 1901, Benjamin Cluff, president of Brigham Young Academy, the forerunner of Brigham Young University, requested and received permission from the First Presidency of the Church to form a "Zarahemla Expedition." The expedition's intent was to locate the Land of Zarahemla. Cluff felt that a discovery of this nature would be advantageous to the educational institution of the Church. The general feeling of the organizers of the expedition was that the heartland of the Book of Mormon was in Central and South America. When the expedition arrived at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, they recorded the following:
“Geographically we entered Central America and Tehuantepec, and, we think, entered the land of the Book of Mormon at the same place.
Still, the general thinking of the day was that the history of the Book of Mormon covered a large amount of ground from South America to North America... However, regarding the accomplishments of the 1901 expedition, Cluff wrote that the expedition:
1. Served to open to the Mormon people knowledge of the countries on the South where they believe the ancient Nephites and Lamanites lived.
2. Probably furnished some evidence to corroborate the theory of Anthony Ivins and other Book of Mormon authorities that the narrow neck of land spoken of in the Book of Mormon as being "a Sabbath day's" journey for a Nephite from sea to sea is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
3. Helped to increase the interest in the ancient ruins of Central and South America and so stimulate scholars to do all they can to date the construction of those ruins. (Roberts and Cluff 162; taken from Wilkinson and Skousen 161)
In 1916, Joel Ricks authored some works with maps called "Helps to the Study of the Book of Mormon." His work represented one of the first attempts at placing Book of Mormon cities on a map.
In 1919, Lewis E. Hills, a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‑day Saints, proposed maps with a Mesoamerica setting. He labeled Veracruz, Mexico, as the place where both the Jaredites and the Mulekites landed; and he labeled El Salvador as the landing site of the Nephites.
In 1920, the geographical statements in the footnotes of the Book of Mormon were deleted.
Traditional Statement: The history of the Book of Mormon took place in both the North American and South American continent. South America is the Land Southward and North America is the Land Northward. The Narrow Neck of is the Isthmus of Panama, and the last battles recorded in Book of Mormon were fought in New York at the Hill Cumorah.
Limited Geographical Theory: A new theory arose in of Mormon geography suggesting that the relative distances in the Book of Mormon were much smaller than traditionally assumed. One writer, Niles Washburn, developed just such a map but refrained from correlating it with an existing map.
Washburn's internal geographical approach seemed to be stable in authorized Church literature. As evidenced by an article that appeared in 1938 in the Church's publication, The Improvement Era. Lynn C. Layton was the author of the article, but this presentation is unique in that it does not attempt to place the scene of action on the present‑day map, but merely indicated the relative positions of one place with respect to another, as inferred from a study of the text. (Improvement Era 1938:394‑95)
Another important event took place that set precedence for the study of the history and geography of the Book of Mormon. Elder John A. Widtsoe, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of' the Church, organized the Department of Archaeology at Brigham Young University. Dr. Wells Jakeman, then a recent recipient of a Ph.D. in Archaeology from Berkeley, was appointed as the chairman of the newly formed department. Jakeman became known as the father of Book of Mormon archaeology. He pursued the limited geographical approach and proposed that the history of the Book of Mormon took place in the area called Mesoamerica. This proposal became known as the "Limited Tehuantepec Theory."
Thomas Ferguson became an avid enthusiast of Book of Mormon studies in relation to archaeology. He made his first of 25 trips to Mexico beginning in 1946 and ending in 1983, one month prior to his death. Like Jakeman, Ferguson favored the Mesoamerica or "Limited Tehuantepec" theory ‑ which is that virtually all of the history recorded in the Book of Mormon occurred in Mexico and Central America. Ferguson wrote a 78‑page booklet, Cumorah‑Where?, in 1947.
An organization called the Society for Early Historic Archaeology (SEHA) was formed at Brigham Young University, with Wells Jakeman as chairman.
Thomas Ferguson became a driving force in Mesoamerican archaeology and the Book of Mormon. In 1950, he and Milton R. Hunter, a member of the Quorum of Seventy, published the book Ancient America and the Book of Mormon. In 1958, Ferguson wrote One Fold and One Shepherd.
Ferguson's untiring efforts in Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican research led to the establishment of the New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF), which received financial support from the Church beginning in 1955. From 1961 to the present, the organization became known as BYUNWAF. In 1988, the headquarters were moved from Chiapas, Mexico, to the campus of Brigham Young University.
Archaeologist Gareth Lowe served as the field director during most of those years. Howard W. Hunter, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, served as chairman of the organization. Thomas Ferguson served as secretary until his death.
Archaeologists Bruce Warren, Garth Norman, Tom Lee, and Pierre Agrinier, along with scores of students and workers, made the NWAF the leader in Mesoamerican archaeology during these many years. Emphasis was placed on archaeological research without inference to the Book of Mormon. (For a more detailed analysis of the NWAF, see Warren and Ferguson, The Messiah in Ancient America, pp. 247‑84.)
From 1950 to 1980, the two most prominent schools of thought regarding Book of Mormon geography continued to exist, as follows:
1. A number of Book of Mormon authors and Church members endorsed the "Limited Tehuantepec Theory."
2. Other authors and Church members held fast to the traditional North America‑South America concept, expressing strong feelings that New York was the site of the final Book of Mormon battles.
During the 1950s and 1960s, a type of geography fever caused many members of the Church to think erroneously that everything coming out of Central and South America was related to the Book of Mormon. This shotgun approach, on many occasions, paid no regard to the dating of sites. Enthusiasts randomly labeled everything to be Book of Mormon related.
Milton R. Hunter and Thomas S. Ferguson's 1950 book, Ancient America and the Book of Mormon, demonstrated a serious attempt to correlate the writings of the Spanish Chronicles with the cultures of the Book of Mormon‑including for the first time that portions of the writings of Ixtlilxochitl had been recorded in English. As stated, Ferguson published One Fold and One Shepherd in 1958. In 1959, Hunter published Christ in Ancient America.
For the most part, however, the educational literature of the Church reflected a non-committal type of attitude. Dr. Daniel Ludlow, professor of Religion at Brigham Young University, wrote A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon in 1976. A Book of Mormon and Biblical scholar, Ludlow followed the pattern of drawing an internal geographic map with no reference to an existing map.
For the most part, however, the majority of the current writers and the current scholarly thinking appear to favor highly a Book of Mormon setting in Mesoamerica. This development has come about as a result of intensive studies in both Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon.
Sorenson, who opened the door for further research, presented the Book of Mormon in relation to Mesoamerica archaeological sites. His detailed analysis culminated a lifetime of work as an anthropologist and a Mesoamerican scholar. His scholarly work set the stage for additional study on the subject. Sorenson served as chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Brigham Young University from 1978 until 1986. He retired in 1986.
While speaking to the faculty of Brigham Young University, President Spencer W. Kimball said: “The Lamanite‑Nephite culture means much to the people of the Church, and properly so. Here at B.Y.U., should we not have the greatest collection of artifacts, records, writings, concerning them in the world? Through revelation we have received much knowledge concerning these peoples. Should not B.Y.U. then be pre‑eminent in the field of culture? (Spencer W. Kimball, Faculty Address, September 12, 1967, Brigham Young University)
On November 10, 1985, Ezra Taft Benson was set apart as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‑day Saints. In his first General Conference address as President, in April 1996, he vividly proclaimed the importance of the Book of Mormon with strong words that continue to this writing. “Unless we read the Book of Mormon and give heed to its teachings, the Lord has stated in Section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants that the whole Church is under condemnation: "And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all." (D&C 84:56) The Lord continues: "And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written." (D&C 84:57)
Now we not only need to say more about the Book of Mormon, but we need to do more with it....
The Prophet Joseph said that "The Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than any other book." (Book of Mormon, Introduction) The Book of Mormon has not been, nor is it yet, the center of our personal study, family teaching, preaching, and missionary work. Of this we must repent....” (Benson, "Cleansing the Inner Vessel" 5)
1 bless you with increased understanding of the Book of Mormon. I promise you that from this moment forward, if we will daily sup from its pages and abide by its precepts, God will pour out upon each child of Zion and the Church a blessing hitherto unknown‑and we will plead to the Lord that He will begin to lift the condemnation‑the scourge and judgment. Of this I bear solemn witness. (Benson, "A Sacred Responsibility"