The Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography made a statement of fact that I immediately pointed out was actually nothing more than editorial opinion. This is a common drafting error, but it should have been caught by whoever edited the document.
Unless the editorial opinion is agenda-driven, which we all hope is not the case.
Here is the statement:
The Prophet Joseph Smith himself accepted what he felt was evidence of Book of Mormon civilizations in both North America and Central America.
The statement would have been accurate had it said "It is possible that Joseph..." or "Some believe that Joseph..." Or even, "there is evidence that Joseph..."
But to declare what Joseph accepted and felt is not factual because there is no known document written or dictated by Joseph Smith, nor any recorded statement by Joseph, that supports this statement.*
It is pure mind-reading.
Look at the language in the essay. "Joseph Smith himself accepted." That is not only mind-reading (no one can say what he accepted when he never articulated such acceptance), but the insertion of "himself" is a rhetorical device used to convey authority for the specific proposition he allegedly "accepted."
The next mind-reading is here: "what he felt was evidence."
The footnote at the end of this post discusses the evidence from 1841 and 1842 that M2C intellectuals usually cite for this claim, but as you'll see, it is merely conjecture, not fact. And that evidence was not cited in the essay anyway.
BTW, I proposed changes to the essay to correct factual errors. Most of my proposals were ignored. Consequently, this and other errors remain in the current version.
Of course, the statement in the Gospel Topics Essay is now being quoted everywhere as the official Church position on what Joseph thought and taught.
But it's a false tradition. It teaches the youth of the Church (and everyone in the world) that Joseph learned Book of Mormon geography from a popular travel book.
This false tradition exalts academic inquiry (only by those trained in the
Joseph explicitly claimed that he was informed by Moroni "concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people, was made known unto me."
[Source: the Wentworth letter, available here: https://www.lds.org/study/ensign/2002/07/the-wentworth-letter?lang=eng. Remember, don't read the Wentworth letter in the Joseph Smith lesson manual because critical passages were censored by the Correlation Department to accommodate M2C.]
Note that the Wentworth letter was published in the Times and Seasons on March 1, 1842, well after the supposed evidence that he learned the geography from a popular travel book. The M2C intellectuals (and the Gospel Topics Essay) want us to believe that Joseph was more persuaded by the popular travel book than by what Moroni taught him.
Aside from the inherent problem of creating and spreading a false tradition, the application in this case is especially tragic.
The Gospel Topics Essay uses the statement to cast doubt on what the prophets and apostles have always taught about the New York Cumorah.
Let's say, for sake of argument, that Joseph Smith did actually learn Book of Mormon geography from a travel book in 1841-1842. Let's even say he thought ruins in Central America were built by the Nephites, despite what Moroni taught him.
That still has nothing to do with what he taught about the New York Cumorah.
Both before and after 1842, Joseph's own brothers republished Letter VII in official Church newspapers. Don Carlos, at Joseph's direction, republished Letter VII in early 1841 in the Times and Seasons. Joseph's brother William, one of the Twelve Apostles, republished Letter VII in 1844 in the Church newspaper in New York City titled The Prophet. Letter VII appeared two days after Joseph was martyred in Carthage.
And, of course, Joseph specifically referred to Cumorah in his September 1842 letter, originally published in the Times and Seasons and now canonized as D&C 128:20.
Consequently, the false tradition established in the Gospel Topics essay still has nothing to say about what Joseph, Oliver, and all the other prophets and apostles have consistently taught about the New York Cumorah.
Nevertheless, M2C intellectuals continue to claim that because Joseph learned Book of Mormon geography from a travel book, he must have also changed his mind about the New York Cumorah. That's the fundamental premise of M2C.
In the Preface to the second edition of my book Brought to Light, I wrote this observation about what we can say about history: