Friday, April 2, 2021

Preface to Between these Hills

This is the updated preface to my book Between these Hills.

Preface

 

Welcome to the magnificent world of the Book of Mormon. People everywhere are curious about the reality of its people and places.

I stipulate that the message of the Book of Mormon is more important than its geography or history. Believers rely on spiritual impressions more than physical evidence. But lingering questions about geography and history impede acceptance of the book as scripture.

Because many misconceptions about this topic exist, here are two important premises behind this book.

 

1. The location of Cumorah does not determine the settings of other Book of Mormon locations in the New World.

 

2. The Cumorah question is not so much about geography as it is about the reliability and credibility of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, their contemporaries, and their successors.

_____

 

After decades of thinking of the Book of Mormon in a Mayan (Mesoamerican) setting, in 2014 I learned two alternative concepts: the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is really in western New York, and Book of Mormon events took place in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, and New York. I began blogging about what I was learning.

 

My premise: Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery taught the truth.

The opposing view: Joseph and Oliver were wrong about Cumorah.

 

I’m only a minor participant and late comer compared with other well-known scholars, authors, speakers, and their organizations. For decades, they have produced numerous books, articles, web pages, blogs and videos. Yet my simple blogs have generated over 750,000 page views from all over the world.

Why the interest in Cumorah?

During his first visit to Joseph Smith, Moroni identified the location of the plates as “the hill of Cumorah.” In early 1827, before he obtained the plates, Joseph and his family referred to the hill by the name Cumorah.

Oliver Cowdery learned the name when he and Joseph translated the abridged plates in May, 1829, in Harmony, Pennsylvania.

In June 1829, David Whitmer learned the name for the first time from a divine messenger who was taking the Harmony plates back to Cumorah.

For all of Joseph’s contemporaries, the fact of Cumorah linked the Book of Mormon to the modern world. They expressed various opinions about other locations of Book of Mormon events, but the New York Cumorah was an established fact.

For many believers in the Book of Mormon,[1] Cumorah is part of the historical reality at the core of their belief in the divine authenticity of the book. Because they believe the book is true spiritually, they believe it must also be true physically.

Other believers think questions about Book of Mormon geography are irrelevant, troublesome, or contentious.

Nonbelievers claim there is no extrinsic evidence to supports its historical claims—at least, not the type of evidence they’ve been led to expect. For similar reasons, some believers accept the book as an inspirational text akin to the parables in the Bible; i.e., it teaches truth but is not a real history.

Belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon is declining, even among members. A survey published in 2019[2] indicated that younger members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are less inclined than previous generations to accept the Book of Mormon as an actual history—such as only 50% of Millennials.

 

Table 1.3 Mormons’ Certainty about LDS Teachings, by Generation

% who are “Confident and Know this Is True”

 

Boomers/

Silents

GenXers

Millennials

Delta

 

Born before 1965

Born 1965-1980

Born since 1981

 

The Book of Mormon is a literal, historical account

 

62%

 

53%

 

50%

 

-12

Figure 1 - Certainty about Book of Mormon

More surprising, perhaps, is that more than 1 in 3 of older generations question whether the Book of Mormon is a literal history.

Regardless of what you believe now, I hope this book will give you insights into why so many people (i) accept the Book of Mormon as an authentic history and (ii) still believe the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah.

_____

 

When Moroni first visited Joseph, he explained there was a “history of the aborigines of this country” that had been “written and deposited” not far from Joseph’s home near Palmyra, New York. Joseph’s mother explained that Moroni told Joseph the name of the hill was “Cumorah,” the name by which his family identified the hill thereafter.

After Joseph translated the abridged plates from Moroni’s stone box in the hill, he and Oliver visited Mormon’s depository of Nephite records (Mormon 6:6) in another part of the hill.[3]

Mormon chose that location because he knew the Jaredites had built defenses there. The Jaredites, who called the hill Ramah, had chosen the site because of its strategic location. Abundant external evidence corroborates this setting.

For decades, prophets and apostles reaffirmed these teachings about the New York Cumorah. For those of us who grew up in the LDS Church before the 1990s, the New York Cumorah was a well-established given. Newer members, however, know little or nothing about the New York Cumorah. For example, the Church history book Saints, volume 1, completely erased Cumorah from the historical record.

Why? What changed?

_____

 

In the early 1900s, a book titled Cumorah Revisited criticized the prevailing hemispheric model of Book of Mormon geography. This made sense, actually. In the 1842 Wentworth letter, Joseph had replaced Orson Pratt’s hemispheric speculation with the declaration that Lehi’s remnant were “the Indians that now inhabit this country,” a reprise of what Moroni told him the first night. People forgot or ignored that.

Consequently, in response to Cumorah Revisited, scholars rejected what Joseph and Oliver taught and decided that the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 could not be located in New York but must be in southern Mexico. They developed what I call the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory (M2C), reasoning that the New York Cumorah was merely a tradition—a false tradition—based on ignorant speculation.

Naturally, the scholars taught M2C to their students, and through the academic cycle, pursuant to Alma 12:9, within two generations the New York Cumorah was forgotten and M2C became the de facto—and nearly ubiquitous—faithful explanation of the Book of Mormon. Bias confirmation has produced plenty of supporting evidence.

If you accept M2C, that’s fine with me. If you don’t think geography matters, that’s also fine with me. I won’t persuade you otherwise. I only encourage people to make informed decisions.

_____

 

One thing that attracted me to this topic was what I considered academic abuse of faithful Church members who still believed what the prophets taught. For years, the credentialed class attacked and ridiculed those who disagreed with them about Book of Mormon geography. They sought to censor alternative ideas and evidence that contradicted M2C. I investigated, concluded the scholars were defensive because their work was riddled with logical and factual fallacies, and blogged about the problems I saw. But blogs have limited usefulness.

This presented a dilemma. On one hand, I’m happy for people to believe whatever they want. I don’t want to disturb the faith of those whose beliefs are interwoven with M2C. They deserve respect—as do those who disagree with them.

On the other hand, people are troubled by the rejection of the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah and related topics. The logical and factual fallacies in apologetic M2C arguments turn people off. Believers seek an explanation of the Book of Mormon that corroborates and vindicates the teachings of the prophets.

I don’t see this as a case of right vs. wrong. Instead, the topic calls for recognizing multiple operating hypotheses. That will lead to mutual understanding and respect, despite disagreement.

Harmony in diversity leads to the establishment of Zion.

_____

 

From my perspective, just as the Book of Mormon is “the keystone of our religion,”[4] the New York Cumorah is the keystone of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. It is the only specific New World touchstone between the modern era and the ancient Jaredites and Nephites that has been identified by prophets and apostles.

This is not a book about Book of Mormon geography, per se. Originally, I contemplated writing a detailed, evidence-based presentation on why people should embrace the New York Cumorah. There is plenty of material. But by now, we all can see that facts don’t really matter. People believe whatever they want and then find facts to reinforce their beliefs.

Instead, I use Cumorah as a case study. You can adapt the principles of analysis and thinking described in this book to explore other topics. I won’t try to persuade you or tell you what to think. Naturally, we will review internal and external evidence about the New York Cumorah, but this is not a comprehensive resource.[5] I’ll offer information and interpretations you might not have considered. Then you’ll make up your own mind by making informed decisions.

Let’s review the two key points.

 

Key point #1: the New York Cumorah does not determine where other events took place.

 

The teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah are consistent and persistent. But they have also taught that we cannot specifically identify where other events took place. That makes sense because there are many ancient sites in the real world that fit the text.

 

Key point #2: The Cumorah question is not so much about geography as it is about the reliability and credibility of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.

 

The historical record is clear: Oliver Cowdery’s explicit declaration that it was a fact that the hill in New York is the Cumorah of the Nephites and the Ramah of the Jaredites was universally accepted by Joseph’s contemporaries for the reasons we’ll review in this book. We have to consider the ramifications of repudiating those teachings.

 

Still, people can believe anything they want. Whatever our beliefs, let us all strive to humbly “receive knowledge from time to time.” D&C 1:28. There is surely more to discover—if we’re open to it.



[1] Numerically most believers are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), but there are thousands of believers in other faith traditions, including traditional Christian denominations as well as the Community of Christ, the Church of Jesus Christ, The Restoration Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, etc. I use “Church” to refer to all of these.

[2] Jana Reiss, The Next Mormons (Oxford University Press, New York, 2019), Table 1.3.

[3] All these references are cited in the body of this book. For one of many detailed discussions, see Cameron J. Packer, “A Study of the Hill Cumorah,” https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6007&context=etd

[4] Quotation from the journal of Wilford Woodruff, attributed to Joseph Smith, Jr.

[5] The Bibliography lists some resources. A visual resource is https://www.mobom.org/known-bom-locations. A comprehensive reference is https://stepbystep.alancminer.com/. If you’re interested in my explanation of how the text of the Book of Mormon describes a geographical setting consistent with the New York Cumorah, see my book Moroni’s America.


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