I've been getting a lot of complaints about the February Ensign because of the Mesoamerican theory it perpetuates. Let me assure you I had nothing to do with it.
The issue is available online here.
There are two categories of complaints:
1. The Cover.
2. The Sorenson article.
I'll address them in reverse order, in good chiastic fashion.
2. The Sorenson article, available here. Those who have read this blog and my books know that I respect John Sorenson and his scholarship immensely. I just think he made a big mistake focusing on Central America because he fell for the anonymous Times and Seasons articles about Central America.
This article is an excellent example of my point. Brother Sorenson unwittingly helps to prove the North American setting while disproving the Mesoamerican setting.
First, I note that the Ensign article is adapted from a longer piece published by the Maxwell Institute in 2011, available online here.
Second, Brother Sorenson's original article is an excellent resource for those interested in how the text was compiled. The Ensign edited out most of the detail while retaining the major points.
Third, the article is refreshingly devoid of references to Brother Sorenson's Mesoamerican theory, except for the point that "the book had to be portable enough that Moroni could carry it to a safe location." This passage alludes to Brother Sorenson's claim that Moroni carried the plates from Central America to New York.
That gets to my main point. Brother Sorenson writes this:
This project began at the last location where the Nephites camped before they finally gathered to the land of Cumorah.... Mormon’s writing activity probably extended into the four-year period of preparation for the final battle agreed to by the Lamanite commander, but in any case the abridged history was completed and the archive was buried in the Hill Cumorah well before the final conflict (see Mormon 6:6).... Mormon had little more than three years to do all of the compiling and writing of over 600 years of history. He may not have had time even to read through all the archival records in his hands, and there surely would be no time for stylistic fine-tuning or reediting.
Of course, Brother Sorenson thinks all of this took place in Central America. Only later, in his view, did Moroni take the plates and other artifacts to New York.
I completely agree with Brother Sorenson that Mormon compiled the text during the preparations for the final battle, but Moroni told Joseph Smith exactly where this writing project took place.
He [Moroni] then proceeded and gave a general account of the promises made to the fathers, and also gave a history of the aborigines of this country, and said they were literal descendants of Abraham. He represented them as once being an enlightened and intelligent people, possessing a correct knowledge of the gospel, and the plan of restoration and redemption. He said this history was written and deposited not far from that place, and that it was our brother's privilege, if obedient to the commandments of the Lord, to obtain, and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record.
So Brother Sorenson points out that Mormon wrote the history during the preparations for the last battle, and Moroni tells Joseph Smith that the history was written and deposited not far from Joseph's home near Palmyra, New York.
Brother Sorenson is making the case for the New York Cumorah!
1. The cover (and the illustration to Brother Sorenson's article) depict Mayan elements. However, as Brother Richard E. Turley, Jr., Assistant Church Historian, pointed out in the October 2015 Ensign, we shouldn't confuse artistic interpretation with historical fact or doctrine. "Over the years, artists have sought to portray the Book of Mormon translation, showing the participants in many settings and poses with different material objects. Each artistic interpretation is based upon its artist’s own views, research, and imagination, sometimes aided by input and direction from others. Here are a few scenes produced throughout the years."
The artist, Joseph Brickey, is fantastic. You can see his web page here: He has some of the best religious art I've seen. (Those who have read The Rule of Equity will appreciate his depiction of the circle and square in the tree.) I highly recommend Brickey's art.
The cover came from this piece: http://www.josephbrickey.com/product91.html. Fortunately, it doesn't depict the anachronistic Mayan temples that we see in so much Church-sponsored art. The painting is ambiguous enough that it could represent a variety of settings. And, the text tells us Christ visited many people, not just those in Bountiful. The title of the painting is simply "Christ in America." I have no problem with that. Of course, the inference is that this painting depicts Christ visiting the Nephites, which is more problematic. He's standing at the top of stairs on what could be interpreted as a symbol of a sacrifice on an altar. Under the law of Moses, you can't have steps leading to an altar (Exodus 20:24-26). So this is not a Nephite setting. Again, it's not a problem if you understand it is not intended to depict Christ appearing to the Nephites, but most LDS, sadly, will probably think that's exactly what it's depicting.
The illustration accompanying Brother Sorenson's article is a little more problematic, although it is brilliantly painted. The printed Ensign only shows part of the painting; the online version shows the entire painting here.
I love artistic license as much as anyone, but this is supposed to be the Hill Cumorah, as you can see from the the bodies on the ground below Mormon (or Moroni), who stands on a precipice. Even 1,600 years ago, I don't think there were palm trees in New York. Nor was Lake Ontario that close to the Hill Cumorah. It's great that Mormon has a metal sword in his hilt--smelting was unknown in Mesoamerica but not in ancient North America--but some of the other elements are Mayan/Central American, which are completely out of place for the Hill Cumorah.
I realize most LDS won't pay attention to these details, but they reinforce the long tradition of Church art portraying Book of Mormon events in Central America. This type of art contravenes the official Church policy of neutrality on the question of geography.
I'm also sure some people will point to this artwork in the Ensign as evidence that the Church supports the Mesoamerican setting. Sadly, they have a point, but I think it's evidence of the persistence of a tradition based on a historical mistake, not evidence of a thoughtful consideration of the merits of the Mesoamerican theory.
For those upset by the artwork, I hope you appreciate it for the wonderful artistry and disregard it for any doctrinal implications.