Question: Have you ever received a good answer to why the church is “neutral” now when, as you claim, the prophets earlier where not neutral?
Answer: The question relates to the anonymous "Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography." To understand the essay, we need to review the background and context.
Church leaders have always made a distinction between (i) the New York Cumorah, which is a fact taught since before Joseph even got the plates, and (ii) the location of other events, which we don't know for sure.
The current version of the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography blurs that distinction. Let's look at the long-held position first, then assess what "neutrality" means.
Both of the long-held positions make sense. Joseph and Oliver personally visited Mormon's depository of Nephite records inside the Hill Cumorah in New York. Moroni himself called the hill Cumorah, as we know from Lucy Mack Smith's history and Parley P. Pratt's autobiography.
Oliver Cowdery memorialized this fact in Letter VII. You can read that in the Joseph Smith Papers here:
Recall that at the time, Oliver was the Assistant President of the Church. Joseph Smith, President, and Sidney Rigdon, First Counselor, both approved Oliver's letters and Frederick G. Williams, Second Counselor, copied them into Joseph's own history as part of Joseph's life story. These letters therefore originated with the First Presidency and have been reaffirmed by all members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve who have ever publicly addressed the issue, including members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference.
As for other Book of Mormon locations in Lehi's promised land, Church leaders have always said we don't know for sure where they are. There are thousands of sites throughout North America that fit Book of Mormon timelines and geography, but it's impossible to tell which specific ones line up with the named sites in the Book of Mormon.
One well-known example was explained by Joseph Smith during Zion's Camp. Joseph referred to Illinois, Indiana and Ohio as the "plains of the Nephites," alluding to Alma 52:20, 62:18, 19, and possibly Ether 13:28, 29 and 14:15, 16. But he did not link any specific site to any specific passage in the text.
You can read this in the Joseph Smith Papers at the bottom of the page here:
We saw in the first version of the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography that the authors of the essay made some obvious mistakes. Soon after it was released I pointed some out and suggested some revisions, which I posted here.
The essay was quickly revised. The new version was posted without notice and without comment about the changes (which has happened with other Gospel Topics Essays as well). The revised version did correct some errors, but in some ways it made things worse.
And, the current version still avoids mentioning Cumorah. By implication, the essay lumps Cumorah in with the uncertainty about other sites. Consequently, it misleads members of the Church about what the prophets have taught abut the New York Cumorah.
I discussed the changes in this post:
The authors of the anonymous essay squandered an opportunity to educate Church members about the issue, solely because they wanted to accommodate M2C.
Most, but not all, of the members of the committee who wrote the essay believe M2C, so they think the prophets were wrong about the New York Cumorah. The essay was submitted to the Brethren for approval, but the committee apparently refused to even offer for consideration a version of the essay that contained the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah.
This is standard organizational behavior. When employees want a particular outcome, they guide the boss by giving the boss only what they want him/her to consider. If the boss wants alternatives, the employees provide the worst alternatives they can think of so their preferred outcome appears to the boss as the best choice.
The "neutrality" position makes sense regarding specifics about Book of Mormon geography other than Cumorah. As we saw above, there are thousands of sites that match up with the relative few sites named and described in the Book of Mormon. At present, it is impossible to choose among them to identify specific sites.
However, what does it mean to be "neutral" about the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah?
Are we supposed to be "neutral" about whether Oliver told the truth about the visit of John the Baptist (Letter I)?
Are we supposed to be "neutral" about whether Oliver told the truth about Moroni's visit (Letter IV)?
Are we supposed to be "neutral" about whether Oliver told the truth about Moroni's stone box (Letter VIII)?
Are we supposed to be "neutral" about whether Oliver told the truth about the translation of the plates (Letter I)?
You get the drift...
Certain LDS intellectuals have long argued that we actually should be "neutral" on two key points:
1. Whether Joseph even translated the Book of Mormon (they teach the long-discredited "peep stone" narrative); and
2. Whether the Hill Cumorah is really in New York (they teach that Cumorah is in southern Mexico and that all the prophets and apostles who taught the New York Cumorah actually misled the Church).
Advocating "neutrality" about the teachings of the prophets causes people to become confused and disturbed in their faith, as Joseph Fielding Smith warned long ago.
The current version of the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography is part of an effort to de-correlate the New York Cumorah as if it had never been taught. That was a key factor in the Saints book, Volume 1, which created a false historical narrative to accommodate M2C. We discussed that here, for example:
Does anyone think the de-correlation effort can succeed when anyone can read these teachings in the Joseph Smith papers, in General Conference reports, and in books such as Articles of Faith and A Marvelous Work and a Wonder?
Eventually, the Cumorah issue will have to be addressed.
I'm confident that Church leaders will reaffirm the teachings of their predecessors. That seems inevitable because the New York Cumorah is so well established and also corroborated by relevant archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, etc.
However, for decades now the intellectuals have been teachings that the prophets are wrong about Cumorah. They have persuaded many LDS to follow them instead of the prophets. Now Book of Mormon Central is spending millions of dollars to promote M2C on the Internet and around the world. They've even weaved it into the scriptures through ScripturePlus.
M2C is nonsensical to many Church members. Even those who don't know what the prophets have taught about the New York Cumorah find M2C difficult to believe.
But thanks to the efforts of the M2C intellectuals, there are many Church members who believe M2C. They live within the M2C bubble. They don't know any different, and they have no idea what the prophets have taught.
It seems that M2C will have to implode completely before the M2C hoax becomes apparent to those who live within the M2C bubble.
*M2C is the "Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs" theory of Book of Mormon geography. M2C claims the prophets were wrong when they taught that Cumorah is in New York. Instead, M2C teaches that the hill in New York has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon, except that Moroni hauled the plates from Mesoamerica to New York so Joseph could find them.
M2C is a separate issue from where Book of Mormon events (other than Cumorah/Ramah) took place. People can believe the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah and still believe other Book of Mormon events took place in Central, South, or North America.