long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Sourcebook

For those interested in Book of Mormon geography, there's an excellent sourcebook available online here:


John Sorenson assembled the material under the title,

The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Sourcebook

This remains the single best collection of the various geography theories and I recommend it. I refer to it often and cite it in some of my books.

As I always try to emphasize, John Sorenson is an excellent scholar, as this sourcebook shows. Here's his response to an important question:

What would be your advice to someone troubled by references in the Book of Mormon to things that seem anachronistic (for example Jaredite and Nephite metallurgy, pre-Columbian horses, etc.)?
I would say be humble and tentative about the claimed “facts” that we “know” about the ancient world. A good deal of the information that was “surely known” twenty, or forty, or sixty years ago is today passé and outdated. Wait awhile. We are lucky if we “know” 10 percent of what there is to know about ancient life. (Archaeologists, after all, are simply rummaging through the garbage of ancient folks and trying to make sense of it. With time, more garbage, more sense, paradoxically!) At the same time our (believers’) assumptions that we are “reading” the text clearly deserves to be thought through and re-thought through. We do well not to suppose that we are reading any ancient document fully and correctly.
He also wrote this, with which I fully agree. This is advice I have sought to follow ever since I first took a class with Sorenson 40 years ago. It would be even better if he (and the Maxwell Institute generally) took the advice in bold below:
Given your years of experience and significant contributions to the field, what would be your advice to a young student of Book of Mormon studies today?
Stay thoroughly familiar with the book in principle and action as the book itself teaches you. Prepare yourself deeply in some relevant  academic discipline; there is no such thing as a “field” of “Book of Mormon studies.” Continue to question your academic assumptions over the long haul. Trust that the Lord will provide you with necessary assistance (promptings and opportunities) when you are selflessly engaged in his work. Don’t set out to “prove” some point about the book that you have already concluded “must” be “right.” Let truth (or even Truth) be your aim, but do not expect to find TRUTH. Don’t be concerned with convincing any particular audience that someone else is “wrong” and you are “right.”
I wonder if he meant the last paragraph ironically. Certainly he and others at the Maxwell Institute have written a lot of material designed to convince readers they are "right" and others are "wrong." In fact, Sorenson himself encouraged that approach when he advocated that people in this field publish their work so it can be analyzed and critiqued. What sense does it make to do research and not advocate for it? Maybe he just meant that one should focus on pursuing the truth and not on trying to prove someone else is wrong. If so, I completely agree with him. Result-oriented research and straw-man arguments, combined with appeals to authority, are a waste of everyone's time. Yet I find this constantly in the materials published by FARMS and the Maxwell Institute.
Here's another question Sorenson answered.  
How do you account for early statements by Joseph Smith that seem to place Book of Mormon peoples and events in North America, such as Zelph’s burial ground, the hill Cumorah battleground in New York, etc.?
It is obvious that he had a lot to learn about  every subject as his life professed (cf. D&C 121:39, “We have learned by sad experience”). About Book of Mormon geography, he or a close associate wrote in the Times and Seasons in 1841, “We have [just] found another important fact about . . . the Book of Mormon. . . . The city of  Zarahemla stood upon this land [Central America],” as a result of their reading the 1841 book by John Lloyd Stephens. Moreover, as Ken Godfrey pointed out, statements by Joseph about “Zelph” are far from clear and may have had little concrete meaning about Book of Mormon geography. (“What is the Significance of Zelph in the Study of Book of Mormon Geography?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 [1999]: 70-79). Moroni did not “hide up” the plates his father gave him in “the hill Cumorah,” but for many years (Moroni 10:1) “wander[ed]” from that vicinity “for the safety of [his] own life” (Moroni 1:3) before he interred them. So the place where he ultimately buried them (in New York) was not where the final Nephite battle took place. These and other statements about geography attributed to Joseph Smith are best treated as preliminary hunches that he held subject to later correction after further thought and study (as of Stephens’s book).
I completely disagree with Sorenson here, not just because he got a date wrong, but because I wouldn't characterize Benjamin Winchester as a "close associate" in a positive sense. In my view, what Joseph learned from Moroni was more comprehensive than "preliminary hunches" and I think Joseph was pretty clear about that--even after reading the Stephens book when he wrote the Wentworth letter and edited out Orson Pratt's hemispheric/Mesoamerican theory.

But still, Sorenson has done some very helpful research. One must use critical thinking in evaluating his work (as well as the work of anyone else).

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