Because I keep getting requests for a succinct explanation of the issues, let's look at more specifics about multiple working hypotheses in an FAQ framework. (Frequently Asked Questions)
Today we'll discuss Cumorah (the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6). Later we'll discuss the translation, other geographical settings, and additional issues.
Let's consider why Cumorah is important, why the New York setting was taught in the first place, why scholars reject the New York setting, what the implications are, and what to do next.
At the outset, I emphasize once again that people can believe whatever they want. And it is axiomatic that people will find evidence to confirm their biases. That makes it a fool's errand to think that "the evidence" will lead to any particular conclusion.
For me, the questions are:
1. What does the Book of Mormon teach?
2. What have the prophets taught?
3. Is there external evidence to support what the prophets and scriptures have taught?
In my view, the answer to #3 is a clear yes.
I also think it is counterproductive to interpret the text and evidence in such a way as to demonstrate the prophets were wrong. It's easy to do that--interpretations are ultimately subjective--but is it wise? Will that approach convert the world and bring people closer to Christ?
Q. Why is Cumorah important?
A. Cumorah is a pivotal issue for understanding the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the credibility of Joseph, Oliver, and their contemporaries and successors.
There are two categories of working hypotheses for Cumorah.
(1) Cumorah is in New York.
(2) Cumorah is not in New York.
If the prophets were correct and Cumorah is in New York, that pin in the map guides the interpretation of the text and assessment of external evidence.
If the prophets were incorrect and Cumorah is not in New York, then Cumorah could be anywhere in the world, or it could be an allegory or parable.
Note 1: Some people say Cumorah is not in New York, but it is somewhere in the western hemisphere. However, the same prophets who declared the Book of Mormon took place in the western hemisphere also said Cumorah was in New York. If these prophets were wrong about the New York Cumorah, there is no reason to assume they were correct about other geographical information, including the hemisphere. The text says only that Jared, Lehi and Mulek crossed the "great waters," which we assume means the oceans, but the text says nothing about which ocean they crossed or where they landed.
Note 2. The New York location of Cumorah does not determine the location of other events in the Book of Mormon. Even with the New York Cumorah, there are multiple operating hypotheses, ranging from a hemispheric setting to the local area of western New York.
Q. Why have prophets taught that Cumorah is in New York?
A. Because Joseph and Oliver said Cumorah was in New York.
There are several historical sources for this teaching. Here are a few.
1. In early 1827, before Joseph obtained the plates, he referred to the hill as Cumorah, according to the way Moroni identified it. "as I passed by the hill of Cumorah, where the plates are, the angel of the Lord met me and said, that I had not been engaged enough in the work of the Lord..."
2. Joseph had learned the name from Moroni during Moroni's first visit. "To prevent you from keeping the commandments of God that you may not succeed in doing his work you must tell your father of this for he will believe every word you say the record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place remove the Grass and moss and you will find a large flat stone pry that up and you will find the record under it laying on 4 pillars of cement"
3. When Joseph and Oliver were finishing the translation of the abridged plates in Harmony, Joseph received a commandment to write to David Whitmer and ask him to bring them to the Whitmer farm in Fayette. Before leaving Harmony, Joseph gave the plates to a messenger. On the road to Fayette, the group encountered the messenger. David offered to give him a ride but he declined, saying “No, I am going to Cumorah." David remembered this event, explaining "This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant."
David asked Joseph about the messenger. Joseph "said their visitor was one of the three Nephites to whom the Savior gave the promise of life on earth until He should come in power."
See references here: https://www.lettervii.com/p/trip-to-fayette-references.html
This encounter raises the question, why would the messenger take the abridged plates to Cumorah instead of directly to Fayette?
4. During their mission to the Lamanites, Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt and others explained that Moroni had called the hill Cumorah anciently. "This Book, which contained these things, was hid in the earth by Moroni, in a hill called by him, Cumorah, which hill is now in the State of New York, near the village of Palmyra, in Ontario County."
Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/44896/44896-h/44896-h.htm
5. With the assistance of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery wrote the first published history of the Church in a series of eight essays originally published as letters in the Messenger and Advocate (a Church newspaper in Kirtland, Ohio). In Letter VII, he declared that it was a fact that 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 these essays copied into his own history as part of his life story, where you can read this passage here:
Joseph approved of and directed the republication of these essays in the Times and Seasons, the Millennial Star, the Gospel Reflector, and The Prophet (a Mormon newspaper in New York City). All of Joseph's contemporaries were familiar with these essays. These are part of the context for all historical evidence during Joseph's lifetime.
For example, when Joseph wrote the letter that was published in the Times and Seasons in September 1842 (now D&C 128), his readers understood it in the context of Letter VII, which had been published in the Times and Seasons the year before.
And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets—the book to be revealed. (Doctrine and Covenants 128:20)
6. Joseph and Oliver had visited the repository of Nephite records, described in Mormon 6:6, in the hill in New York. Brigham Young explained:
When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. Oliver says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room. He says he did not think, at the time, whether they had the light of the sun or artificial light; but that it was just as light as day. They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: “This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ.”
I tell you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others who were familiar with it, and who understood it just as well as we understand coming to this meeting, enjoying the day, and by and by we separate and go away, forgetting most of what is said, but remembering some things. So is it with other circumstances in life. I relate this to you, and I want you to understand it. I take this liberty of referring to those things so that they will not be forgotten and lost.
See full statement and other references at http://www.lettervii.com/p/byu-packet-on-cumorah.html
6. All of Joseph's contemporaries who ever addressed the topic reaffirmed that Cumorah was in New York.
Q. What evidence is there to support the teachings of the prophets that Cumorah is in New York?
A. The teachings of the prophets are corroborated by archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, and other sciences. Ongoing research in all of these areas by non-LDS scientists expands our knowledge of the history of "the Indians that now inhabit this country" as Joseph Smith described the remnant of Lehi in the Wentworth letter (see below).
Corroboration is a simultaneous equation involving the interpretation of the text and the application of external evidence.
The text of the Book of Mormon accommodates multiple working hypotheses. As does the external evidence.
For example, when the text mentions a "city," is it like a biblical "city" of 2,000 inhabitants, or a metropolis of hundreds of thousands of people?
Before Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, the existence of large civilizations throughout the Americas was well known. Images of ruins in Central America were published in a book by Alexander von Humboldt on sale in Palmyra in 1818-1820. However, people did not know much about the ancient civilizations in North America, apart from the existence of mounds and earthworks.
Religious writers speculated that the Indians were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Others claimed the Indians crossed the Bering Strait from Asia. Some speculated that a more advanced group of Indians were overrun and destroyed by a savage group.
It wasn't until the late 19th century that the existence of two distinct civilizations in North America was discovered. One, called the Hopewell, dates to the same period as the Nephite/Lamanite civilization. The earlier, called the Adena, dates to the Jaredite era. Dating alone doesn't constitute conclusive evidence, of course, but it does (i) corroborate the teachings of the Book of Mormon and (ii) contradict the widespread beliefs of Joseph's era.
If we interpret the text to describe a massive civilization of millions of people, it fits Mesoamerica or other heavily populated ancient civilizations. If we interpret the text to involve thousands of people, it fits the Hopewell civilization.
Several misconceptions have arisen about the Book of Mormon. For example, the claim that millions of people died at Cumorah is based on Coriantumr's remembrance in Ether 15:1–2:
1 And it came to pass when Coriantumr had recovered of his wounds, he began to remember the words which Ether had spoken unto him.
2 He saw that there had been slain by the sword already nearly two millions of his people, and he began to sorrow in his heart; yea, there had been slain two millions of mighty men, and also their wives and their children.
Obviously, this was long before the final battle at Cumorah. Between the time of this remembrance and Cumorah, several battles and long journeys took place. Consequently, there is no basis for assuming millions of people died at Cumorah.
The text itself, if you extrapolate back from the specific numbers given (Ether 15:20-30) describes a war involving fewer than 10,000 people. Which is how Oliver Cowdery described it in Letter VII.
A detailed list of the corroborating evidence is beyond the scope of this post, but I've provided much more information in my book, Between these Hills.
Q. Why do modern LDS scholars teach that Cumorah is not in New York?
A. Many modern LDS scholars teach that the Book of Mormon took place in a limited area of Mesoamerica (or elsewhere) and that New York is too far away from these locations to be credible.
For example, Book of Mormon Central, the most prominent advocacy group for the Mesoamerican theory, was founded by, and is currently operated by, followers of Dr. John Sorenson, who wrote this about the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah:"There remain Latter-day Saints who insist that the final destruction of the Nephites took place in New York, but any such idea is manifestly absurd. Hundreds of thousands of Nephites traipsing across the Mississippi Valley to New York, pursued (why?) by hundred of thousands of Lamanites, is a scenario worthy only of a witless sci-fi movie, not of history."
Mormon's Codex, p. 688.
Notice the underlying assumption (bias) at work here. The New York Cumorah may be "manifestly absurd" when viewed from the perspective of a believer in the Mesoamerican setting, but the Mesoamerican setting itself may be equally "manifestly absurd" when viewed from the perspective of the New York Cumorah.
Q. How do modern LDS scholars treat the historical sources about the New York Cumorah?
A. LDS scholars who teach the limited Mesoamerican geography recognize the existence of the historical evidence listed above, but they claim the New York Cumorah was a false narrative based on speculation and retroactive memory.
They explain the historical evidence with the "two Cumorahs" theory; i.e., they teach that the "real Cumorah" is in southern Mexico, but the "traditional Cumorah" in New York was the product of ignorant speculation on the part of early Latter-day Saints.
Hence the acronym M2C (Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory), which applies to all the geographical models that put Cumorah somewhere other than in western New York.
M2C scholars teach:
-That Lucy Mack Smith retroactively inserted references to Cumorah instead of accurately reporting what Joseph actually said and what he actually told her.
-That Parley P. Pratt was retroactively reporting the false narrative.
-That Oliver Cowdery did not claim revelation for his declaration about the fact of the New York Cumorah and had no basis for making his claim except his pure speculation.
-That Joseph Smith's assistance in writing the historical essays, and his approval of their republication, shows he either accepted the false narrative about the New York Cumorah or did not realize what Oliver had written.
-That David Whitmer's memory was wrong because it had been altered by the false Cumorah narrative.
-That in D&C 128:20, Joseph either accepted the false narrative about the New York Cumorah, was referring to a hill in Mexico, or was using Cumorah as a metaphor.
-That Brigham Young and the others (including David Whitmer, Heber C. Kimball, and Wilford Woodruff) who related what Oliver said about visiting the repository were describing a vision Oliver had of the "real Cumorah" in southern Mexico or elsewhere.
Q. What was the origin of M2C?
A. Early Mormon authors, including Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, and Benjamin Winchester, claimed the Book of Mormon events took place throughout the western hemisphere. On March 1, 1842, when he published the Wentworth letter, Joseph Smith adapted a pamphlet written by Orson Pratt but specifically deleted Orson's references to Central America and replaced it with the declaration that "The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country."
Nevertheless, anonymous articles published later that year in the Times and Seasons linked the Book of Mormon to Central America.
In 1906, a book titled Cumorah Revisited was published by Charles Shook, claiming there was no archaeological evidence to support the hemispheric model of the Book of Mormon.
In response, RLDS scholars (Stebbins and Hills, mainly) developed a model based on a limited geography in Mesoamerica. They said Cumorah could not be in New York and published a map in 1917 showing Cumorah in southern Mexico (about where modern LDS M2C scholars put it).
Elder Joseph Fielding Smith pointed out that this model contradicted the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah and would cause members to become "confused and disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon."
Nevertheless, LDS scholars gradually came to accept the RLDS model. They cited the anonymous 1842 Times and Seasons articles (which didn't mention Cumorah) as evidence that Joseph Smith had changed his mind about Cumorah. Through their positions of influence at BYU and CES, they imposed Mesoamerican culture and ideology on the text of the Book of Mormon to make it match archaeological and anthropological evidence.
Q. How is M2C being taught today?
A. M2C scholars have produced lists of "correspondences" between Mesoamerica and their interpretation of the text. Book of Mormon Central spends millions of dollars annually to promote M2C. Their employees are active on social media to promote M2C. They collaborate with other groups, such as Fair Mormon, BYU Studies, and the Interpreter Foundation, to establish M2C as the de facto "official" position.
BYU and CES have adopted M2C as well. Every young and new Latter-day Saint is being taught to understand the Book of Mormon through the M2C interpretation.
For example, here is the map that BYU students are taught:
This map puts Cumorah far from New York. In fact, it puts the Book of Mormon in a computer-generate fantasy world. Teaching LDS students that the best fit for the Book of Mormon is a fictional setting unavoidably contributes to a loss of faith in the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
Meanwhile, LDS students and new members are never taught (in Church) what the prophets have taught about Cumorah. Cumorah was censored from Volume 1 of the Saints book. The Wentworth letter was edited in the lesson manual on the teachings of Joseph Smith to delete his observations about the remnant of Lehi that we saw above.
When Church members eventually learn on their own what the prophets have taught, they naturally wonder why their BYU/CES teachers never taught them this, and they also wonder how to reconcile M2C with the teachings of the prophets.
Q. What are the implications of M2C?
A. It is common knowledge that many formerly faithful Latter-day Saints are leaving the Church. Few, if any, leave with an intact testimony of the Book of Mormon.
What causes people to lose faith in the Book of Mormon?
As Joseph Fielding Smith explained, the two-Cumorahs theory causes members to "become confused and disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon."
The reason: it is difficult for people to reconcile the basic premise of M2C:
1. We should believe Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery as the founding prophets of the Restoration, the only witnesses to the restoration of the Priesthood and the temple keys, the principal witnesses of the translation, and the only ones who could authoritatively articulate the early history of the Church.
2. Joseph and Oliver were wrong about (i) the New York Cumorah and (ii) the translation with the Urim and Thummim.
For influential LDS scholars to teach this inherently contradictory set of beliefs can only undermine faith in the Restoration. They are trying to thread this needle solely to support their own academic theory of the Mesoamerican setting.
Put yourself in the place of a missionary right now. Or in the place of the friends (investigators) they teach.
Compare these two messages:
1. (based on scholars) "We want to share this book with you. We believe it is the word of God. Joseph Smith dictated it to a scribe as he read words that appeared on stone he put in a hat. Nearby, he had ancient metal plates covered with a cloth that he found after being directed by an angel, but he never actually used them to translate the book we have today.
The book tells the story of two great civilizations in the Americas, numbering in the millions, but we don't know where any of them lived. If you look on the Internet, you'll see that Joseph Smith and his contemporaries and successors said the civilizations fought a battle of extinction in New York, but our prophets were wrong about that. Instead, our scholars teach that they lived in a limited area of Mesoamerica. Non-LDS Mesoamerican scholars say that's ridiculous, but that's just their opinion. We want you to read this book and join our Church."
2. (based on prophets) "We want to share this book with you. We believe it is the word of God. Joseph Smith dictated it to a scribe as he translated the engravings on ancient metal plates he found after being directed by an angel.
The book tells the story of two great civilizations in America. We don't know the exact location of all the places named in the book, but if you look on the Internet, you'll see that Joseph Smith and his contemporaries and successors said the civilizations fought a battle of extinction in New York. There is abundant external evidence to support that claim. We want you to read this book and join our Church."
Certainly, both scenarios require an element of faith.
But how does faith work when you are supposed to have faith in the prophets, except when scholars disagree with the prophets, in which case you're supposed to have faith in the scholars?
Q. What to do next?
A. If you believe in M2C or another theory that puts Cumorah somewhere besides in western New York, that's fine with me. People can be faithful Latter-day Saints regardless of their beliefs about geography, the translation, or anything else.
Bias confirmation is powerful--probably too psychologically powerful for most people to overcome. That's why conversion is so difficult. The things we learn when we're young or new to a topic tend to stick with us, especially when we're taught by people we respect.
Consequently, faithful Latter-day Saints who believe M2C, or who believe the geography doesn't matter, have difficulty relating to those who don't share their biases.
Those of us who are faithful Latter-day Saints and who also still believe the teachings of the prophets about these things are also confirming our own biases. We readily acknowledge that.
We just think it's a step too far to expect people, whether LDS or not, to repudiate some of the teachings of the prophets while accepting others.
Regarding Cumorah and the translation, we're not talking about an isolated teaching of one prophet or apostle (such as Brigham Young's Adam-God theory). We're not even talking about a thread of teachings with a murky origin, such as the Priesthood restriction.
We're dealing with unambiguous, declarative statements from Joseph and Oliver, all their contemporaries, and their successors.
True, for the last two decades or so, Church leaders have been silent about Cumorah. I support the Brethren 100%. For example, the Gospel Topics entry on Book of Mormon Geography declares that the Church has no position on these issues, which is what I'm advocating: multiple operating hypotheses.
Some M2C proponents claim that because the Brethren don't reiterate past teachings about Cumorah they have repudiated those teachings. That entry doesn't mention Cumorah. In no way does it repudiate the New York Cumorah.
There could be many reasons or no reason why the entry omits Cumorah entirely. This is a matter of Church history, textual interpretation, and external evidence based on relevant science, all of which are the type of topic we can all study ourselves. Is the omission of Cumorah from the entry because the Brethren disagree with their predecessors, because they aren't sure whether or not to agree, because they have different views on the issue, or because scholars have used the academic cycle to persuade Church members to reject these teachings and the Brethren want to avoid stirring up the issue?
Besides, the entry was modified after I pointed out obvious errors in the first iteration and it could be modified again at any time.
Regardless, each member of the Church is responsible to study these things individually.
What do you think?
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