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.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Squandering the uniqueness of the Book of Mormon

Any time we conceptually assign individuals to a group based on shared characteristics, we are overgeneralizing because people are more complicated than that. However, for analysis purposes, there are four major groups of people whose thinking is affected by the psychology of influence when it comes to the Book of Mormon:

1. Active, believing LDS.
2. Inactive and/or former LDS
3. Antagonists (LDS or not)
4. Indifferent nonmembers

In my view, the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography is detrimental for groups 2-4, so I won't discuss those groups in this post (except in a footnote*). Instead, I'll focus solely on group 1.

While I think everyone in group 1 would like to know where the Book of Mormon events took place, I estimate that 90% of the people in the group claim they don't really care about the geography issue because: 

i) they are confused by the different theories and don't want to invest time and effort toward reaching a conclusion because they figure no conclusion is possible, given the fact that smart, faithful LDS have dramatically different ideas;

ii) they defer to LDS scholars and educators as a proxy for deferring to Church leaders who have left the questions unresolved; and/or

iii) they feel this is a controversial topic that raises questions they don't want to think about (cognitive dissonance).

Most of the 90% claim to be satisfied by their spiritual witness of the Book of Mormon. This is fine, of course, but it can lead to complacency. Worse, I think it's a major reason why the Book of Mormon has not yet swept the Earth.

In the first place, adherents to most religions feel a spiritual connection to their holy book(s). This is axiomatic, or nearly so, and therefore a claim of spiritual witness has little to no persuasive effect outside the group that is already convinced. 

People to whom the idea of a spiritual witness is new might be an exception, although experience shows that non-religious people are even less receptive to the message of the Restoration than religious people (mostly Christian) who already have a spiritual witness of their own holy books (such as the Bible). 

Let's say 250,000 converts are baptized every year. That's a lot of people, but there are over 7 billion people in the world. We're not even keeping up with population growth. Plus, we all know a significant, but undisclosed, number of people resign from the Church every year. We all know of areas where missionary work is stagnant. IMO, one reason is that we are inherently conflicted over the Book of Mormon because of the geography/historicity issues. 

This leads to my second point. Certainly members and investigators who search for answers on the Internet quickly discover how unsettled these issues are. Members, including missionaries, are defensive when questioned about geography and historicity because they know they don't have answers. They can't even tell one another, let alone investigators, where the Hill Cumorah is (meaning the Mormon 6:6 scene of the final battles). In many cases, they can't even discuss it in Church classes because it's not an "allowed" topic.

In the third place, Christians make the argument that people get a spiritual witness of the Book of Mormon because so much of it consists of quotations from the Bible. It's a plausible argument for many Christians. From the days of Joseph Smith through the present, Christians have been the most open to the Restoration, but their pastors and theologians are not passively watching their membership leave to become LDS. They have developed their own programs aimed at converting LDS missionaries. The internal LDS debate about geography/historicity is a component of the Christian efforts to sow doubt and confusion about the Book of Mormon.

In my opinion, these problems can be addressed by members and missionaries who know the Book of Mormon is unique among holy books because of its historicity and unique origins; i.e., if it is an actual ancient history, then it could only have been produced by the gift and power of God. That, in turn, means Joseph and Oliver were telling the truth about everything.

We squander that uniqueness when we undermine the historicity claim with confusion about the setting. 

And we further squander our position when we undermine the reliability and credibility of Joseph and Oliver.

For these two reasons alone, it's critical that LDS reach consensus that reverses the damage caused by years of confusion and repudiation of the prophets. Let's just agree, once and for all, that the Hill Cumorah is in New York.   

Short of that, I hope we can eventually reach the point where all interested LDS scholars and educators participate in a full and open conversation about how to present the totality of the circumstances to members of the Church so each individual can make an informed decision. 

*I think the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography is detrimental for groups 2-4 because it has created barriers to belief by contradicting:

i) the plain language of the text, which never mentions jungles, volcanoes, Mayans, or pyramids; 

ii) the explicit statements of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and everyone who knew them, at least with respect to the New York Cumorah;

iii) the explicit statements of every prophet and apostle who has spoken on the topic, at least with respect to the New York Cumorah.

On top of that, the Mesoamerican theory is supported only by illusory "correspondences" between Mesoamerican archaeology/anthropology and strained interpretations of the text. This compounds the attack on the credibility and reliability of the prophets and apostles that is at the foundation of the two-Cumorahs theory. 

The confidence of Mesoamerican advocates is not in question. “It is the true believer’s ability to ‘shut his eyes and stop his ears’ to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard,” wrote Eric Hoffer in 1951, “which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy.”

What is in question is their willingness to consider all the evidence and allow others (i.e., their audience and readers) fair and reasonable access to the alternatives.

Suppressing Letter VII and adhering to self-serving "requirements" for Cumorah don't work any longer. Anti-Mormon web pages delight to show how LDS scholars are rejecting their own prophets so they can promote the Mesoamerican theory. Investigators and youth discover this with a few clicks.  


  1. There are more groups. Count me part of the group that is just exhausted by all the sniping, under-cutting, attacking, and mud-slinging--who's followed all the major theories and their variations (Meso, Heartland, South America, Malaysia, Baja) and found all of them to have interesting points but also serious defects. Do I occasionally drop by to see what the latest is? Yes. But I've grown much more exhausted and disinterested over it. And, at the end of the day, I think the tumult hurts almost as much as it helps. Maybe more. That's where I am today. Ask me again in 6 months.

    You're all right. And you're all wrong. But beliefs are stubborn things.

    1. I find most of the "sniping, under-cutting, attacking, and mud-slinging" comes from those who adhere to the Mesoamerican theory. Jonathan does none of the above. Does he disagree with Mesoamericanists? Yes. But he points out the flaws in their arguments in a charitable fashion in my opinion.

    2. Ah yes, "it's all their fault."

    3. Hi WonderBoy. Your exhaustion is understandable. It's what I described in i) above. That's why I've boiled it down to a simple choice: Do you think Cumorah is in New York or elsewhere? That answer is driven by whether you believe Letter VII (Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery). It's not complicated, unless you reject Letter VII and then need to figure out which of the non-New York Cumorahs makes the most sense. Choosing among those alternatives is definitely exhausting, which is why I hope people don't waste their time on them when it is so simple and clear once we accept what Joseph and Oliver said in the first place.

  2. Lost in the tumult are more important matters. I'd like to see some of the intellectual and spiritual firepower being expelled on behalf of Book of Mormon archaeology be re-purposed more towards "market-penetration" and "large-scale application" of it.

    Mormon 9:31

    "Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, THAT YE MAY LEARN TO BE MORE WISE THAN WE HAVE BEEN."

    It's a shame that whole countries, peoples and tongues are not yet truly leveraging the BOM to solve problems in the world. That's partly what it was written for, after all.

    1. We could penetrate markets better in a large scale way if we could all agree on where the Hill Cumorah is. Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, every Prophet I can think of have all put the Hill Cumorah in New York. No wonder confusion and discord exists with respect to the Book of Mormon because of Mesomania.

  3. Actually, it wouldn't help unless incontrovertible, compelling archaeological evidence were discovered by non-LDS scientists. Otherwise, wouldn't impact penetration at all.

    1. There used to be more than 10,000 mounds and other archaeological features in North America. Unfortunately most were destroyed because of "Manifest Destiny" and the deliberate destruction by John Wesley Powell and others from the Smithsonian.

  4. It's a good comment, WonderBoy. But think of this from the perspective of nonmembers (whole countries, people and tongues). Until we eliminate the confusion on our end, how can we expect them to take the Book of Mormon seriously? Our own scholars are teaching that Joseph and Oliver didn't know what they were talking about, that the promised land is in Mexico and Guatemala, etc.

    1. I think that IS the challenge: how to get more people at bigger scales to take it seriously even though we don't know exactly where/how it all went down. We DON'T have confusion on our end over the MOST important things: it's true, it happened, it's the word of God, it leads a man to Christ, etc. We all (actives) affirm it's true, embrace it and use it. Frankly, most non-LDS are agnostic to the internecine squabbles of BOM Archaeo-nerds. Any agreement we come to amongst ourselves will have only marginal benefit outside our circle. We should focus more on the penetration in spite of the splits within our own ranks.

    2. To the extent non-LDS are agnostic to the "squabbles" it's because the squabbles support their opinion that the book is fiction. As long as these squabbles continue, they're comfortable rejecting the whole thing on that basis. But if we unite at least on the New York Cumorah and on the credibility and reliability of Joseph and Oliver, they wouldn't have that excuse. Plus, it's no wonder people are reluctant to join up with a disfunctional group who can't even agree about their foundational text and the prophets and apostles they claim to support. Unity isn't really optional. To use your military analogy, what army succeeds when there are "splits within the ranks" like this? There's a verse about "if ye are not one..."

  5. Jonathan,

    I do appreciate your respectful tone as well as your well-studied opinions. However, based on your comments in this string--along with all of your writings as a whole--I believe what you've got going here is an elaborate straw man.

    Knowing WHERE the Book of Mormon took place and coming to internal agreement over that has NEVER been the focus or goal of the Book of Mormon and it's mission. Yes, there may be discord and "dis-unity" over where Cumorah is, but that's not what's most important. The most important things for our "unity" are 1) Is it true? 2) How can you know? 3) Is it the word of God? 4) What does it tell us about coming to Christ and living our lives? 5) How was it brought forth? 6) Why do we have it? etc... There are others, to be sure, but that list is a good start. Those are the important things to have unity around. Those are the things that make the impacts.

    Agreeing on where Cumorah is/who's right about Cumorah has never been a requisite item on Joseph's list, Oliver's list, or the Lord's list. The Book of Mormon has been accepted by millions and changed lives outside of this controversy.

    I don't mind the study, discussion and inquiry. For sure it's important and I'm all for it. I despise people who dismiss deep gospel study with the all-to-familiar "that's not important to my salvation." But in this case, agreement over Cumorah just isn't the top of the list, nor even near the top. Plenty of unity exists around more important items.

    To hang acceptance, penetration, elevation and application of the Book of Mormon on Cumorah is not only misguided endeavor, but it creates a "single point of failure" paradigm that diminishes the overall scope of the big picture.

    Straw man.

    1. I guess that was just a long-winded way to say this:

      Proposition: The Book of Mormon can't make bigger inroads and leave a bigger impact unless we resolve the Cumorah controversy.

      Conclusion: Poppycock. Millions upon millions of lives have been impacted without such resolution.