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.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The 4 Cumorahs

Yesterday, I listed the 3 Cumorahs, plus the hybrid. Today let's discuss these four Cumorahs in reverse order.

In this post and all my posts, I don't claim any prophetic or Church support, and I'm not trying to persuade anyone. I'm merely stating the facts as I see them to help people make informed decisions for themselves.

The Gospel Topics Essay opens up the issue of Book of Mormon Geography like never before. No longer can the M2C intellectuals in the M2C citation cartel claim prophetic or Church support for their theories.

Now is an ideal time to reassess what we know about Cumorah and what alternatives there are.

Now, to the 4 Cumorahs.

Mormonism Unvailed - 1834
#3. Cumorah is nowhere because it is fictional. Critics have long claimed that Joseph Smith, alone or with the help of others, invented the Book of Mormon. An 1834 book, Mormonism Unvailed [sic] claimed Joseph and Sydney Rigdon coped the Book of Mormon from an unpublished book by Solomon Spaulding.

Responding to this book was one of the reasons why Joseph and Oliver Cowdery wrote the eight historical letters that were so widely published during Joseph's lifetime. Letter VII's claim that it was a fact that the Hill Cumorah is in New York was a direct response to the allegation that the Book of Mormon was fiction.

More recently, critics say Joseph drew on the King James Bible, The Late War and other pseudo-Biblical books, such as The American Revolution. An article in the Interpreter inadvertently supported that argument, as I discussed here:


Other critics focus on Joseph's personal and family experience as a source for the Book of Mormon narrative. As such, they claim there was no "Hill Cumorah" in the real world, no Zarahemla, no land of Nephi, etc. According to them, the Book of Mormon is fictional, even if it was created with the intent to bring Christians together.

Some members of the Church also believe this idea that the Book of Mormon is inspired fiction, comparable to a parable that teaches about Christ and the gospel.

I don't accept the fictional Cumorah; I think the descriptions in the text and related scientific evidence (archaeology, anthropology, etc.) supports the traditional teachings about the New York Cumorah.

However, the fictional Cumorah is undoubtedly the most widespread belief in the world; i.e., most people don't believe in the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

BYU fantasy map
#2a. Cumorah can best be understood in a fictional setting, but it existed in a real place. This is the approach taken by CES and BYU. It's a hybrid between #2 and #3, but by de-linking the text to the real world, it leans more toward #3.

Employees at BYU and CES have generated fictional, or fantasy, maps to explain their interpretations of the geographical references found in the text. These show Cumorah in a fictional location on the premise that the prophets and apostles who taught the New York Cumorah were wrong.

Apparently, the employees don't want to (or have been told not to) teach students a specific setting in the real world. The reason: there is no consensus about any real-world setting among M2C intellectuals because they think the prophets were wrong about the New York Cumorah, and there is no further guidance about any Book of Mormon geography. The intellectuals think their interpretation of the text is the best, but it doesn't fit anywhere in the real world. The only viable alternative is a fantasy map.

The fantasy maps do impose a particular interpretation on the text, such as teaching that different terms (narrow neck of land, small neck, etc.) refer to the same unique geographical feature instead of different features. The fantasy maps all look a lot like Central America (Mesoamerica) except for the north/south orientation. That's hardly a coincidence, because most, if not all, of the CES/BYU employees believe in some form of M2C.

I don't accept the fantasy/mythology approach to Book of Mormon geography because I think it's a real history that took place in the real world.

In my view, using a fantasy map to teach the Book of Mormon to all the youth in the Church creates deep cognitive dissonance that will have a long-term impact. It frames the text as fiction, comparable to Lord of the Rings or another fantasy book, movie, or video game.

I think in the long term it is psychologically difficult, if not impossible, for someone raised to think of the Book of Mormon in terms of a fantasy map to also think of it as a real-world account of real-world people. 

The current generation of teachers/employees was raised to understand the Book of Mormon in a real-world setting (either or both of the New York Cumorah and Mesoamerican/Latin American settings). For them, it's possible to entertain the two competing ideas (real world and fantasy) at the same time. The fantasy map is merely an overlay on the literal history they were taught and accepted when they were young.

However, once the current generation, raised on the fantasy maps, becomes the teachers and leaders, I think it's inevitable that they will lean toward, and ultimately embrace, the fictional Cumorah and deem the entire Book of Mormon to be a myth.

BYU Studies M2C Cumorah
#2. Cumorah is anywhere except in New York, but it somewhere on Earth, and probably in "the Americas."

As mentioned above, this theory originated in the early 1900s with scholars in the RLDS Church, but some LDS intellectuals embraced it based on anonymous articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons.

They conclude that Joseph Smith actually endorsed a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon. They reason that New York is too far from Mesoamerica to be the location of the "real" Cumorah of Mormon 6:6.

Although Joseph helped write Letter VII, had it republished multiple times and copied into his personal history, and wrote D&C 128:20, these intellectuals believe and teach that Joseph really didn't know where the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 was located. Instead, they teach that Joseph adopted a false tradition about the New York Cumorah that was started by other early Saints, probably Oliver Cowdery.

To shade their repudiation of the New York Cumorah, these intellectuals reason that there were, actually, two Hills Cumorah. The one in New York was merely the place where Joseph found the plates. The other one--the location of the final battles and the depository of Nephite records--was elsewhere.

The most popular theory for a non-New York Cumorah is the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory (M2C), which puts the "real" Cumorah in southern Mexico. Other variations use the reasoning behind M2C and apply it to other locations, including the Baja Cumorah (B2C), the Chile Cumorah (C2C), the Panama Cumorah (P2C), etc.

These proponents all claim "the text" is the most important consideration, but in every case, it's not the text but their interpretation of the text that is the most important consideration for their theories.

If you read their material, you will see it consists of two main components:

1. They all reject the teachings of the prophets and apostles about the New York Cumorah, which frees them to believe whatever they want, so long as they can interpret the text to justify their beliefs.

2. They all rely on circular reasoning and illusory evidence to confirm their bias regarding their preferred setting for Cumorah.

For decades, I accepted M2C because that's what my Seminary and BYU teachers taught and they convinced me. Like the current employees at Book of Mormon Central Censor, I thought people who disagreed with my M2C professors were ignorant, anti-science, etc. But when I took a more skeptical look at the substance of M2C, as set forth in publications, lectures, videos, etc., it became obvious to me that the whole thing was based on the two components listed above.

#1. Cumorah is in New York.

The record is clear: there is no question that past prophets and apostles have taught, without equivocation, that the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in western New York. [A partial list of their teachings is available here.]

No one has to accept those teachings, of course. People can question the reliability and credibility of those prophets and apostles, such as by saying they were unqualified and merely expressing their private opinions.

As a matter of Church history, rejecting the New York Cumorah requires a person to believe that Joseph's associates, including his mother, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer, had poor memories and/or stated speculation as fact, and thereby misled members of the Church for decades. 

After all, Oliver Cowdery wrote, in Letter VII, that it was a fact that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites took place in the mile-wide valley west of the hill in New York where Joseph found the plates. Joseph had Letter VII copied into his personal history and republished in official Church newspapers. He never questioned, let alone rejected, the New York Cumorah. And why would he? His mother reported that he knew the hill was named Cumorah even before he got the plates. He could only have learned this from Moroni himself.

Joseph's early associates affirmed that Moroni himself said the hill was named Cumorah anciently.

Plus, according to several Church leaders, Joseph and Oliver had personally visited the depository of Nephite records in the same hill. This was no speculation on their part; they had personal experience.

But let's say, hypothetically, that the M2C intellectuals are right; i.e., all these associates of Joseph Smith, and all the prophets and apostles, were merely speculating (even though they never suggested anything of the sort).

Let's say they were "merely expressing their opinions." Does that make them wrong? Does that mean they misled the Church?

Of course not. 

Scientific evidence. If we shift to scientific evidence, the New York hill remains the best real-world candidate for the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6.

When he joined the Church, Heber C. Kimball visited the hill and observed the embankments around it. The area has since been plowed for decades, but detailed topographical maps suggest there may be one residual feature from the ancient embankment left.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have reported that around 300 A.D., the Hopewell civilization in Ohio ceased building sophisticated earthworks and instead built a series of defensive structures. This was about the time when Mormon traveled to Zarahemla and became the military leader of the Nephites. He led them on their wars with the Lamanites, which eventually ended in retreat to Cumorah.

Archaeologists say there was a general Hopewell movement toward western New York. Defensive structures similar to those in Ohio, although rapidly constructed, appear throughout western New York. Heber C. Kimball reported they were common knowledge. There are dozens of sites in western New York that show temporary occupancy of Hopewell people, even though the major Hopewell sites are centered in the Midwest (which Joseph described as the plains of the Nephites, but we're not relying on that in the scientific examination. He also correctly identified the trade network associated with Zelph, which archaeologists didn't figure out until much later, but we're not relying on that, either.)

Populations estimates for Book of Mormon people vary widely, but IMO, the text describes a relatively small population.

When Lachoneus assembled the Nephites in the center of the land to defend against the robbers, they "did march forth by thousands and tens of thousands." (3 Ne. 3:22). The numbers cited in the text  correlate to the Roman Numeral system of units, tens, hundreds, then thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and so on.

Mormon never gave us a census, but we can infer that some groups who assembled had thousands, while others had "tens of thousands." However large the number was, "they did dwell in one land, and in one body," beginning in the latter end of the 17th year. They had "reserved for themselves provisions... that they might subsist for the space of seven years." We wonder, how many people using A.D. 17 technology could you assemble in one place, together with enough provisions to last for seven years? A million seems highly unlikely. Mormon never used the term "hundreds of thousands." From that I infer the number was in the tens of thousands, possibly up to two hundred thousand, and was probably lower than that.

Mormon expressed his idea of a "great number of men," when he added "even to exceed the number of thirty thousand" (Mormon 1:11). The largest enumerated Nephite army was only 42,000 men (Morm. 2:9), assembled after gathering in their people (2:7), while the largest enumerated Lamanite army was only 50,000 men (2:25). This was around 346 AD, only about 40 years before the final conflict at Cumorah.

After years of slaughter and retreat, the Nephites assembled at Cumorah. My reading of Mormon 6 tells me Mormon and Moroni could see the bodies of their 20,000 people lying in the Cumorah valley. The other 21 leaders of their respective ten thousand each were killed elsewhere, either in the wars immediately leading up to the battle at Cumorah or the wars throughout Mormon's military career. This is also how I read Letter VII.

The physical evidence at Cumorah accommodates these numbers, both in terms of logistics and in terms of the number of arrowheads and other weapons found in the area over the years.

Other people reach other interpretations, of course. For example, some think the text requires volcanoes near Cumorah; when I read the text, I see no mention of volcanoes.

Consequently, the question of Cumorah will probably never be solved.

Unless the day comes, as President Ivins said in General Conference, that the rest of the plates come forth, are translated, and published to the world.

Everyone is free to believe whatever he/she wants to believe. I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. I want people to make informed decisions.

And I think that's what most of us want, as well.

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