The Gospel Topics essays don't exist in a vacuum. We have to consider the larger context to understand how people will read this essay.
Most people who have questions (especially youth and friends/investigators) will consult a variety of sources.
|Missionaries teaching with iPad|
We hope they'll pray about it, but we know for sure they're going to spend at least a few minutes online searching for information, which means they will read not just Church sites, but also critical sites.
One of the most popular of these is the CES Letter. Those who work with the youth in the Church, the missionaries, or the less active, know that the CES Letter has become influential for many people.
To understand how the new Gospel Topics essay appears in the context of what people read on the Internet, let's look at what the CES Letter says about Book of Mormon geography (footnotes omitted, original in blue, my comments in red):
6. Archaeology: There is absolutely no archaeological evidence to directly support the Book of Mormon or the Nephites and Lamanites, who were supposed to have numbered in the millions.
This premise is understandable because of what M2C scholars have been teaching, but the text has no indication of such large populations (I've discussed this here). IOW, CES Letter is using the speculations of M2C scholars--not the text itself--to attack the Book of Mormon.
This is one of the reasons why unofficial apologists have developed the Limited Geography Model (it happened in Central or South America) and claim that the Hill Cumorah mentioned as the final battle of the Nephites is not in Palmyra, New York but is elsewhere.
These "unofficial apologists" are the M2C scholars. This is as good as summary as you will find anywhere. The missionaries have no response to this criticism because they've all been taught the same thing throughout CES and BYU.
This is in direct contradiction to what Joseph Smith and other prophets have taught.
The Gospel Topics essay completely avoids this key point. Students in CES and BYU also never learn what the prophets have taught. It is inexcusable for members of the Church (including the youth and missionaries) to learn what the prophets have taught about Cumorah for the first time from critics of the Church.
As currently written, the Gospel Topics essay lends credence to the CES Letter because it ignores what the prophets have taught about Cumorah.
It also makes little sense in light of the Church’s visitor’s center near the Hill Cumorah in New York and the annual Church-sponsored Hill Cumorah pageants.
The Church has announced the termination of the Cumorah pageant after 2020. The Cumorah Visitors Center will soon be remodeled (the budget has already been approved) and will likely be renamed as the Church History visitors center with no mention of Cumorah. These two developments support the point made by the CES Letter.
We read about two major war battles that took place at the Hill Cumorah (Ramah to the Jaredites) with deaths numbering in the tens of thousands – the last battle between Lamanites and Nephites around 400 AD claimed at least 230,000 deaths on the Nephite side alone. No bones, hair, chariots, swords, armor, or any other evidence of a battle whatsoever has been found at this site.
These exaggerated numbers result from a common misreading of the text, as we learn from Letter VII. In reality, many weapons of war have been found on and near the Hill Cumorah. In 1832, the embankment around the hill was still visible, as reported by Heber C. Kimball. Since then, the valley has been heavily farmed.
John E. Clark, director of BYU’s archaeological organization, wrote in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: “ In accord with these general observations about New York and Pennsylvania, we come to our principal object – the Hill Cumorah. Archaeologically speaking, it is a clean hill. No artifacts, no walls, no trenches, no arrowheads. The area immediately surrounding the hill is similarly clean. Pre-Columbian people did not settle or build here. This is not the place of Mormon’s last stand. We must look elsewhere for that hill.”
Here we have a prominent BYU professor teaching that the prophets are wrong. His article has been cited repeatedly by other M2C scholars. I addressed it here:
I realize the Cumorah issue has been hotly debated by intellectuals in the Church, but M2C has tainted their interpretation of both the text and the physical evidence. It is counterproductive to censor the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah.
In this context, the Gospel Topics Essay lends support to the CES Letter and other critics. A revised Essay that affirms the teachings of the prophets would follow the pattern established by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and would support faith in the Book of Mormon.