After that, I will briefly summarize the history of the blog and the responses I have received.
Many members of the Church are deeply attached to a particular setting for the Book of Mormon. If your ideas work for you—in the sense that your beliefs make the text more real for you and help you understand and apply its meaning—then that’s great. In this blog I’m simply relating the facts as I understand them, along with reasonable inferences. This understanding works for me. Your mileage may vary. Do what you think best.
Summary and thesis
This is a summary of the facts in Church history as I understand and interpret them. You may or may not have heard/read these things before, but probably you have not. Some people will disagree with me about some of the details, but my point here is not to convince anyone. I'm just explaining my thesis. I’m not including any references or detail; I’ve provided hundreds of footnotes in this blog and in my books for those interested.
In 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery translated the plates Moroni deposited in the square box he constructed of stone and cement in the Hill Cumorah near Palmyra, New York.
Due to increasing persecution, Joseph and Oliver arranged to continue the work at the Whitmer farm in Fayette. Joseph gave the plates to a heavenly messenger in the form of a man. David Whitmer drove his wagon to Harmony to pick them up. On their way to Fayette, they passed the messenger on the road. David asked if he wanted a ride, but the man declined, saying he was heading for Cumorah. David had grown up in the area but had never heard of Cumorah. He turned to Joseph to inquire. When he turned back, the messenger had already left.
Joseph and Oliver translated the plates of Nephi (1 Nephi through Words of Mormon) in Fayette. When they finished, Oliver, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris sought permission to see the plates.
The messenger then returned all the plates and artifacts to the repository in Cumorah.
Later, Joseph arranged to have eight other men view the plates. These men were all in the area of Palmyra when they saw them. Joseph and Oliver went to the repository, retrieved a set of plates (probably Mormon’s, not Nephi’s). Joseph and Oliver returned the plates to the repository. This likely happened on more than one occasion; i.e., two groups of four men each saw the plates, but they all signed a joint statement of testimony.
During Zion’s Camp, Joseph recognized the terrain as the plains of the Nephites. He wrote about it to Emma, who had been one of the original scribes. She knew what Joseph was referring to because they had discussed what Joseph learned from Moroni during his interviews, when Moroni told him all about Nephite society and showed him the people in vision.
Joseph knew the Native American Indians who lived in the Great Lakes region were the descendants of Lehi’s people. He met with tribes from this area and told them their fathers had written the Book of Mormon.
At various times, Joseph tried to write a history of the Church, but events were unfolding so rapidly—and he was not comfortable writing because of his limited education—that the efforts never amounted to much. In 1834, Oliver began writing a series of letters to W.W. Phelps, outlining the early history. Joseph assisted in the effort. Oliver wrote eight letters that were published in the Church’s newspaper, the Messenger and Advocate, in Kirtland. In Letter VII, he described the Hill Cumorah and explained that the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites took place in the mile-wide valley west of Cumorah.
Oliver didn’t claim revelation on the point; he knew it was true because Mormon had deposited the records in the hill and Oliver and Joseph had both seen them there. That's why Joseph had his scribes copy Letter VII into his journal as part of his history (this was after Letter VII was published in the Messenger and Advocate in 1835).
Years later, Joseph gave express permission to Benjamin Winchester to republish the letters, including Letter VII, in the Gospel Reflector. Joseph's brother Don Carlos also republished them in the Times and Seasons. The following year, 1842, Joseph referred to Cumorah in D&C 128. Cumorah in New York was universally understood in Joseph's day because Joseph and Oliver taught it, and they taught it because they had been inside Mormon's repository and had moved the Nephite records.
From the outset of their missionary work, Parley P. Pratt, Benjamin Winchester, and other early missionary/authors were constantly being attacked by anti-Mormons. One persistent line of attack was the claim that Joseph had copied the Book of Mormon from a manuscript by Solomon Spaulding. Pratt and Winchester both responded to this claim. Another criticism focused on the text itself. The Book of Mormon describes advanced civilizations, but everyone knew the Indians were savages. Critics claimed the Book of Mormon merely repeated the legends of ancient civilizations in North America that were destroyed by the savage Indians. Pratt, Winchester, and others responded to these criticisms by pointing to discoveries of long-lost civilizations in Central America that built great stone pyramids and cities.
When the Saints moved to Nauvoo, Don Carlos started the Times and Seasons. He died in September 1841, after which Ebenezer Robinson took over as publisher and editor. Winchester moved to Nauvoo and began working at the paper in November, despite being severely disciplined by Joseph Smith on October 31. Every issue of the Times and Seasons from November 1 through February 15 contained at least one long article written by Winchester but published anonymously, giving credit only to the Gospel Reflector.
Joseph was busy with many responsibilities, well documented in his journal. Editing the Times and Seasons was never mentioned in his journal. (Nor was printing the paper.) Although Joseph was the nominal editor, William soon became the acting editor of both newspapers, with the uncredited assistance of Phelps (although it is very difficult to determine which of them contributed what editorial content). Winchester, who had been sending material to the Times and Seasons since its very first issue in 1839, continued sending articles to the paper.
Because of his tenuous relationship with the Twelve, Winchester’s work was published anonymously and over the signature of the Editor. One example is the article "Try the Spirits," published on 1 April 1842, which contains several passages that are nearly identical to portions of Winchester's Synopsis and Concordance.
Later in the year, William published some of Winchester’s material over a pseudonym. Winchester continued adapting the material he was writing for his Synopsis and Concordance. As in the Gospel Reflector, Winchester’s main themes were baptism, opposing anti-Mormons, and proving the Book of Mormon with extrinsic evidence. Winchester wrote editorial comments about the works of Josiah Priest and Stevens and Catherwood. Three of these articles appeared in the September and October 1842 Times and Seasons, making an explicit link between the Book of Mormon and Central America. The one published on October 1 even claimed Zarahemla was in Quirigua, Guatemala.
Joseph Smith usually saw the paper when everyone else did—after it was published. He was dismayed by the Oct. 1 issue. He realized that having his name listed as the nominal editor conferred an element of authority on the paper that was unwarranted and risky. He had already been told by others that William’s editorial approach reflected badly on the Church so he decided to remove William as editor of both papers. He, Joseph, would officially resign first and allow William to keep his name on the Wasp for a while longer, although John Taylor would take over both papers immediately.
Joseph faced a dilemma that his resignation alone would not resolve. His critics read every word of the Times and Seasons, looking for opportunities to criticize Joseph and the Church. The paper was struggling financially. If he were to recant the Zarahemla article, his critics would have a field day. The same issue contained the letter that would become D&C 128. If he retracted the Zarahemla article, his critics would say D&C 128 was also false doctrine. He decided to let the article go without comment. It was never cited again or even mentioned (until the 20th Century by LDS scholars who sought to promote a Mesoamerican theory of geography).
Where else doesn’t really matter.
Whether you concoct an abstract map, or put Cumorah in Mesoamerica, Peru, Baja, or Eritrea, you’re rejecting Letter VII.
As I read the promise in Moroni 10, it doesn’t apply exclusively to those who have a gift of faith to believe on words only. In verse 1, Moroni says he writes to his brethren, the Lamanites. IOW, the Lamanites are real, identifiable people. Then he gives a specific date: “more than four hundred and twenty years have passed away since the sign was given of the coming of Christ.” Then he says he will “seal up these records,” showing they are real, tangible items. Then he tells his readers to “ponder in your hearts” the things you have read. Think about them. Then pray. The Holy Ghost will “manifest the truth of it unto you.”
Does this promise apply only to those on the faith train? I don’t think so. I think the Holy Ghost can manifest the truth of things through physical, extrinsic evidence as well.
For decades, scholars have skirted the issue by avoiding Letter VII and discounting the repository as a “visionary” experience. But anti-Mormon web sites, easily accessible to anyone interested, hardly ignore Letter VII. People who search the Internet discover Letter VII and the disconnect with the current "widespread consensus among believing scholars."
Let’s be clear: I think the Mesoamerican theory is false, and CES teachers should abandon it as soon as possible. I think everyone who has promoted the Mesoamerican theory ought to reject it publicly and reaffirm the credibility and reliability of Oliver Cowdery.
I know that's a lot to ask. And as I've said, I'm fine with people having different ideas. I'm fine with agreeing to disagree about things.
What I'm not fine with is suppressing important information.
I think every member of the Church should read Letter VII and make a decision about whether to accept it or not.
Here's another reason why I wrote this blog. For too long, I accepted and somewhat promoted the Mesoamerican theory. I taught it on my mission when I used Church-approved media. I taught it in my family and in Church, again using Church-approved media materials.
My first post was an analysis of a list of 37 reasons why North America could not be the setting for the Book of Mormon. It was purportedly written by BYU Professor John L. Sorenson, a prominent advocate of the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography. As I wrote in the post, I am skeptical of that he actually wrote the list, but it was a good starting point for my analysis.
Almost without exception, the Church historians want me to separate history issues from Book of Mormon geography issues.
[Trigger warning: if you are a Mesoamerican advocate or a contributor to the Interpreter, you should stop reading now.]
Overall, because of its monolithic viewpoint advocacy I don't consider the Interpreter a legitimate academic publication. It publishes enough good material to give it an appearance of scholarly, objective and rigorous academic standards, but in some areas I think it reflects poorly on LDS scholarship. It is a continuation of the worst of FARMS. I wouldn't care except that there is a perception among many LDS readers that because the Executive Board, the Board of Editors and the Contributing Editors include BYU professors, there is a quasi-official imprimatur of credibility behind it. I'm hoping things will change at the Interpreter, but at this point, the only optimism I can summon for it is that other people, too, recognize the confirmation bias approach it takes.