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.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Brant Gardner on Cumorah

Brant Gardner, a prominent scholar who advocates the Mesoamerican setting, has offered some opinions on Cumorah that I'll touch on here.

He wrote a piece available from the Maxwell Institute here titled "This Idea: The “This Land” Series and the U.S.-Centric Reading of the Book of Mormon." My comments in red. Bold is my emphasis of what Gardner wrote.

Gardner writes (p. 142-3): "Because the plates had been retrieved from a hill in New York, that hill was called Cumorah, [Here Gardner conflates his own views with the early Saints' motivation for naming the hill. Maybe he has a reference to what they were thinking, but he didn't cite it.]  though it appears to have required ten to twenty years for the Saints to settle on that name for the location.3 [I'm curious what the starting point of the 10-20 years is. Cowdery published his Letter #7 in July 1835. Going back 10 years would mean Gardner is counting from 1825. 20 years would put it at 1815. But as Raish notes, Joseph and Oliver "had been introduced to Cumorah as a place-name in late May or early June 1829." Raish, p. 39. See my separate comment on footnote 3.] Once so named, however, it became even more important and merged in the minds of the Saints with the text of the Book of Mormon to become, in popular thought, the very hill at which the final battle between the Lamanites and Nephites took place. [Gardner advances the idea that the name was mere folklore, as if the early Saints would believe major Book of Mormon events occurred in New York purely because someone--someone other than Joseph Smith, to be sure--arbitrarily named the hill where Joseph found the plates "Cumorah." This is one of the strangest logical fallacies I've come across in the Mesoamericanist argument. On the one hand, they say the anonymous Zarahemla article in 1842 must be correct because Joseph didn't retract it. On the other hand, they say Cowdery's Cumorah article is wrong because it was based on folklore, and the facts that Joseph helped write it, saw it published in the Messenger and Advocate, and saw it reproduced twice more (once with his specific authorization), all without correcting or retracting it, are meaningless facts. Well, actually some of the Mesoamericanists say all of this is proof that Joseph didn't know much about the Book of Mormon, translated it wrong, was merely speculating, didn't learn about the Nephites from Moroni, etc.] Oliver Cowdery himself described the hill in 1835 and noted specifically that it was the place where “once sunk to nought the pride and strength of two mighty nations.”4 [Okay, now I'm even more confused. Gardner quotes from Letter #7, proving he did read it. But two paragraphs earlier, Cowdery called the hill Cumorah, which Gardner denies in his footnote 3.]

Footnote 3 reads: "3. Martin H. Raish, “Encounters with Cumorah: A Selective, Personal Bibliography,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 13/1–2 (2004): 39. Raish notes (p. 40, sidebar) that while a very late remembrance by David Whitmer claims that a mysterious stranger was “going to Cumorah” in 1829, there is no corroboration that this name was used that early. Neither Oliver Cowdery in his 1835 description of the hill nor Joseph Smith’s history of 1838 uses Cumorah as the name of the hill. [Here's what Cowdery wrote in his 1835 description of the hill: "By turning to the 529th and 530th pages of the book of Mormon you will read Mormon's account of the last great struggle of his people, as they were encamped round this hill Cumorah. (It is printed Camorah, which is an error.)... He however, by divine appointment, abridged from those records, in his own style and language, a short account of the more important and prominent items, from the days of Lehi to his own time, after which he deposited, as he says, on the 529th page, all the records in this same hill, Cumorah, and after gave his small record to his son Moroni, who, as appears from the same, finished, after witnessing the extinction of his people as a nation." I'm trying to figure out how Gardner concludes that Cowdery did not use Cumorah as the name of the hill in this passage. Anyone? Anyone? Actually, Gardner's paraphrase of Raish may be the problem. Raish wrote, "neither Oliver Cowdery's 1835 description of the hill... refers to the site by the name Cumorah." That's a little different than what Gardner wrote. Cowdery uses the phrase "hill Cumorah" twice, so how Gardner can claim he didn't use Cumorah as the name of the hill is puzzling. Raish, though, refers to a "site" which suggest he might have been thinking of something else. Admittedly, it's not much of a difference, but what were Raish and Gardner reading if not Cowdery's Letter #7? In fact, Raish quotes excerpts from Letter #7 but stops the narrative at the sentence just before the one I quoted above. Why?]

Footnote 4. Raish, “Encounters,” 41. B. H. Roberts continued to hold this opinion [Note how Gardner dismisses Cowdery's account as a mere "opinion" instead of a description. This is akin to the argument that everything Joseph said and wrote on this subject was merely opinion, and uninformed at that.] of the hill as the final battle location described in the Book of Mormon: “Meantime I merely call attention to the fact which here concerns me, namely, that central and western New York constitute the great battle fields described in the Book of Mormon as being the place where two nations met practical annihilation, the Jaredites and Nephites; and of which the military fortifications and monuments described by Mr. Priest are the silent witnesses.” B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1951), 3:73–74; quotation from GospeLink 2001 CD (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000). [The idea that hundreds of thousands of people died at Cumorah is a misreading of the text, as is evident from Cowdery's description. I explain all this in Moroni's America.]


Gardner proceeds to correctly explain how the "location of the Book of Mormon's Cumorah has become a controversial issue" because of the "Limited Geography Theory" that "places all of the events in Central America, including the destructions of the Nephites and Jaredites at Cumorah." 

At this point, Gardner cites William J. Hamblin's classic 1993 piece which I'll also quote here: “Actually, the Limited Geography Model does not insist that there were two Cumorahs. Rather, there was one Cumorah in Mesoamerica, which is always the hill referred to in the Book of Mormon. Thereafter, beginning with Oliver Cowdery (possibly based on a misreading of Mormon 6:6), early Mormons began to associate the Book of Mormon Cumorah with the hill in New York where Joseph Smith found the plates. The Book of Mormon itself is internally consistent on the issue. It seems to have been early nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint interpretation of the text of the Book of Mormon which has caused the confusion on this point. Thus, advocates of the Limited Geography Model are required only to show that their interpretations are consistent with the text of the Book of Mormon itself, not with any nineteenth-century interpretation of the Book of Mormon.”

So much for me misrepresenting what they're teaching, right?

In case you didn't notice the irony, it was "early nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint interpretation of the text" that gave us the 1842 Mesoamerican articles in the Times and Seasons! Those articles are the ones that caused the confusion on this point, not Cowdery's Letter #7 and everything Joseph said and wrote on the issue.

This argument is akin to the "hinterlands" argument; i.e., it is absolutely correct, but backward. 

In this case, the Book of Mormon, as Hamblin would require, is internally consistent on the issue--but only when Cumorah is in New York. Move it to an unknown location in Mesoamerica and it could be, literally, anywhere--which seems to be part of the attraction for Mesoamerica for the proponents of that setting. But Hamblin is exactly correct when he writes that we don't need to be consistent with the "nineteenth-century interpretation;" he just doesn't realize it is the nineteenth-century Mesoamerican interpretation that we can ignore.

I'm going to stop here because Gardner proceeds to offer a criticism of the North American setting that is outdated, even for 2008. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he knows more about North America now than he did back then. 

He even makes the fundamental error about Sidon that I hope, by now, he and other Mesoamericanists recognize.

Gardner is releasing a new book soon. I look forward to it because I'm assuming his book does not make the same mistakes about history, archaeology, and anthropology he made in this article. 

1 comment:

  1. The issue is Mormon 6:6 says the record given to Moroni (the actual book of Mormon) were the only ones NOT buried on Cumorah. And makes the hill those plates were found on the only hill that can't be Cumorah.