First, Michael Ash has a long history as a Mesoamerican advocate. He wrote a series of articles on the topic in 2010, which are now being recycled. In one of them, he describes the attributes of a strong model:
1) are supported by the strongest evidences,
2) do the best job accounting for all the data and
3) have the fewest anomalies (or things that don’t fit neatly into the model).
Some people might be tempted to think that a good model shouldn’t have any anomalies, but the philosophy of science has shown that no paradigm is completely free of anomalies.
By his own criteria, the Mesoamerican model doesn't work. Earl Wunderli and others have dissected it and shown that it is not supported by evidence, does not account for all the data (by which Ash presumably means the text of the Book of Mormon), and has multiple anomalies. After point #3, Ash adds an unnecessary caveat; having the "fewest" anomalies is not the same as having no anomalies.
Ash then makes a series of unsubstantiated assertions. My comments in red.
Joseph obviously had his own thoughts about the possible location of Book of Mormon lands, but he never claimed that his personal views on the matter were based on divine revelation. (At no point I'm aware of did Joseph ever distinguish between what he said Moroni told and showed him, and his so-called "own thoughts." The notion that Joseph expressed his "own thoughts" was created out of whole cloth by Michael Ash, John Sorenson, Matt Roper, Brandt Gardner, etc. In the very article this blog focuses on, Ash seeks to diminish the significance of Joseph's statements about Zelph that he specifically claimed he learned from revelation!) It even appears that the Prophet's views on the geography evolved and shifted with increased information. (There is zero evidence that "the Prophet's views" ever changed. This phrase is just another way to say he expressed his "own thoughts" in direct contradiction to what he himself said; i.e., that Moroni had told him about and shown him the Book of Mormon civilization. What Ash et al cite as "evidence" boils down to a few unsigned articles in the Times and Seasons.)
Getting back to Zelph, Ash makes an argument similar to Roper's about Manti; i.e., that multiple witnesses must record identical accounts or their statements are unreliable and of no worth. He writes, "There is also some question as to the accuracy of the various accounts. We don’t know, for example, how much time elapsed between when the event transpired and when the accounts were recorded."
There are many statements attributed to Joseph Smith on the basis of a single account. Even the King Follett sermon is a compilation of multiple inconsistent accounts. By Ash's logic, we should dismiss that sermon.
In fact, according to Ash, even in his personal letter to Emma, Joseph "was not immune to such speculation."
Ash concludes that "While we may freely accept that Joseph had a vision concerning the person whose bones were discovered, we learn more about early Mormon speculations concerning Book of Mormon geography than we do about revelations on Book of Mormon geography."
As I quoted above, Ash also wrote "Joseph obviously had his own thoughts about the possible location of Book of Mormon lands, but he never claimed that his personal views on the matter were based on divine revelation."
It's pretty cool that Ash can write this while also insisting that, when Joseph did claim his "personal views" were based on divine revelation, these views were still merely speculations. The term "audacity" comes to mind. Maybe the "Audacity of Hope" that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica?
Ash also doesn't mention that Joseph wrote the famous letter to Emma (crossing the plains of the Nephites, etc.) shortly after the Zelph incident. That letter, of course, must also be his "personal views" that were not influenced by the revelation he had about Zelph.
On a related topic, the correspondence between Joseph and Bernhisel deserves more attention. We have seven letters; undoubtedly there were more. Bernhisel wrote to Joseph on 12 July 1841, 18 Aug 1841, and 8 Sep 1841. Joseph sent letters to him on these dates, written by these people, available at the links:
13 April 1841, Robert B. Thompson
3 Aug 1841, Robert B. Thompson
16 Nov 1841, unknown handwriting
4 Jan 1842, Willard Richards
I'm no handwriting expert (although I prosecuted a few forgery cases, so I had to learn about handwriting) but it looks to me like the signature on every one of those letters was that of the writer, not Joseph personally.
Plus, the letters have no corrections, which one expects of dictated letters. The Jan 4th letter is from the letterbook; right at the top it indicates it is a copy of a letter. The 3 August Thompson letter is accompanied by an envelope and postmark. The 13 April and 16 Nov letters have envelopes with addresses but not postmark. They may have been hand delivered.
Maybe if we knew who wrote the 16 November letter we'd have more insight about it. I've explained my thoughts on this letter previously. Joseph's journal doesn't mention the Stephens book, and I question how closely he read the two volumes. He says nothing specific about them. The letter consists of two long run-on sentences, followed by a short salutation. It comes across as a polite thank you to a business partner, an introduction to the real business of selling property. Joseph says he has "land both in and out of the City, some of which I hold deeds for and others bonds for deeds when you come... you can make such a selection from among those as shall best meet with your views and feelings."