In 1973, Michael Coe, a Yale expert on Mayan culture and archaeology, discussed M2C and spelled out the problems that still exist nearly 50 years later. Coe described two categories of Latter-day Saints: the "Iron Rods" who accept the Book of Mormon as an actual history set in Mesoamerica, and the "Liahonas" who "tend to view the Book of Mormon as a source of mores and guidance and for whom Book of Mormon archaeology would probably represent a waste of time and effort." That is Coe's euphemism for people who believe the Book of Mormon is 19th century fiction, albeit inspired and devotional like a parable.
In 1973, Coe claimed the Liahonas "would seem to be concentrated in the liberal wing of the Salt Lake City Church." Today, because of the "M2C or bust" approach of the most prominent LDS scholars and historians, Liahonas are increasingly common even among BYU/CES faculty and Church leaders. I have a friend who has been a Mission President twice while he didn't believe the Book of Mormon is actual history.
Understandably, Coe considered the Book of Mormon only in the context of M2C. Like our M2C citation cartel today, the idea that the prophets were correct about the New York Cumorah never entered the conversation.
I posted an analysis of his article here: https://www.mobom.org/michael-coe-1973-annotated
Excerpt (Coe's original in blue, my comments in red):
The bare facts
of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any
New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the
Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating
to the history of early migrants to our hemisphere.
What Coe said
in 1973 remains true as of 2021—at least with respect to Mesoamerica.
data would strongly suggest that the Liahonas are right about the Book of
Mormon. To me, as a sympathetic and interested outsider, the efforts of Iron Rod
archaeologists to go beyond the moral and ethical content of the Book of Mormon
arouse feelings not of superiority but of compassion: the same kind of compassion
that one feels for persons who are engaged on quests that have been, are now,
and always will be unproductive.
perspective, he is being empathetic, not condescending. From the perspective of
those Latter-day Saints who still believe the teachings of the prophets about
the New York Cumorah, however, there is more a sense of betrayal than of
empathy for the LDS scholars who have rejected the teachings of the prophets
and have taught their students for decades to do likewise.
What has gone
wrong, therefore, with Mormon archaeology? Even the Soviets, wedded as they are
to a nineteenth century doctrine of social and economic evolution, have not
remained so far removed from the mainstream of archaeological and
anthropological thought as the Iron Rod archaeologists. Mormon intellectuals,
it seems to me, have taken three ways to extract themselves from the dilemma.
The more traditionalist, such as my friend John Sorenson, have tried to steer
their stern elders away from Book of Mormon archaeology on the grounds that not
even the best and most advanced research has ever been able to establish on
purely archaeological grounds the historical details of the Bible, for instance
the very existence of Jesus Christ. According to Sorenson, all one can hope to
do is to "paint in the background," which in his case has meant
building up a convincing picture of trans-Atlantic diffusion by presenting New
World-Old World parallels.
This is of interest to non-Mormon archaeologists, and Sorenson has done much to
work out the methodology of such comparisons, but few non-believers have been
swayed when faced with the indigestible cattle, horses, wheat, and so forth.
on diffusion has been helpful regardless of where in the western hemisphere one
thinks the Nephites and Jaredites lived. But Coe (and Sorenson) set up a false
comparison here. No one suggests, implies or even hopes that archaeology can
establish the existence of any individual. But if there was no archaeological
evidence of the Bible’s narrative—no known Jerusalem, no Sea of Galilee, etc.—few people
would take the narrative seriously. The Bible has a real-world setting everyone
can see, even if many biblical sites remain unknown and even the location of
Sinai is subject to multiple working hypotheses. The real-world setting
establishes the credibility of the text, lending plausibility to the
For the Book of
Mormon, plausibility is no less essential. Joseph and Oliver left us the key of
Cumorah, from which we can unlock both the interpretation of the text and a
range of plausible settings. As with the Bible, we will likely never identify
all the specifically named sites, which have been lost to history. But we can
at least establish the credibility of the Book of Mormon as a real history,
which in turn will lend plausibility to the narratives. As Joseph said, the
archaeology in the midwestern United States is “proof of its divine authenticity.”
escape is to take a Liahona approach to the problem. This is obviously Green's
way, as it is that of several other Mormon archaeologists of my acquaintance.
But then what does one do with the Book of Mormon itself? Even the most casual
student will know that the LDS ethic is only slightly based upon the Book of
Mormon, which has very little in it of either ethics or morals; rather, its
ethic is heavily dependent upon such post-Book of Mormon documents as the Doctrine
And what does one do with Joseph Smith, great man though he was, with his outrageous
claims to be able to translate "Reformed Egyptian" documents, with
the ridiculous Kinderhook Plates incident, with the "Book of
Abraham," with Zelph the "white Lamanite," and with all the
other nonsense generated by a nineteenth century, American subculture
intellectually grounded in white supremacy and proexpansionist tendencies?
Coe’s argument omits
his underlying assumption that M2C is the only “approved” setting. Given M2C, the
Liahona approach is the only viable faithful alternative. But M2C is only one of
multiple working hypotheses, and because it rejects the New York Cumorah, it compounds
the problem by undermining the teachings of the prophets.
interpretation of the events he lists confirm his biases, but other
interpretations of the same historical facts don’t support his biases. Evidence
of 19th century influences does not undermine Joseph’s claims; those
influences corroborate Joseph’s claim that he translated the plates. Evidence
of composition is also evidence of translation because translators necessarily
uses their own lexicon and cultural understanding.
The third way
out of the dilemma is apostasy. I will not dwell further on this painful
subject, but merely point out that many unusually gifted scholars whom I count
as friends have taken exactly this route.
Coe put his
finger on the problem. The “M2C or bust” approach of the M2C citation cartel,
symbolized by Book of Mormon Central’s Mayan logo, leaves faithful Latter-day
Saints with a stark choice.
them to either
(i) believe the
prophets were wrong about the New York Cumorah and that there is no evidence of
the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica apart from “correspondences” that are mostly
common to all human societies,
(ii) reject the
Book of Mormon as an actual history.
Faced with this
Hobson’s choice, apostasy has become an increasingly prevalent response.
outsiders investigating the Church, the dilemma posed by M2C is a nearly
insurmountable impediment that obscures the larger message of the Restoration.
This will always be the case so long as the Book of Mormon remains the keystone
of our religion.
until LDS scholars recognize the alternative that the prophets were correct
about Cumorah after all, and that there is extrinsic evidence to corroborate
those teachings, Coe’s three alternatives will remain the only options most
people will consider.
 John L. Sorenson, "Ancient America and the Book of
Mormon Revisited," Dialogue, 4 (Summer 1969), 80-94.
 See Thomas F. O'Dea's The Mormons (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 119-154.