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.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Progress on the geography issue

Congratulations to Gospel Tangents for another series of important interviews.

One of the best M2C scholars is Brant Gardner. He's a great guy, reasonable and open about his views. I like him personally and I respect his work. He recently did an interview with Gospel Tangents that may help everyone understand the issues better than before.

The interview is on youtube here:

During the interview, he discussed the Heartland approach to Book of Mormon geography. In doing so, he clarified the reasons why M2Cers disagree with Heartland ideas. 

The clarification is most welcome. I hope Brant's interview will lead to further dialog and respectful exchanges.

Here are some excerpts from the interview with time code and my commentary. 

Original in blue, my comments in red.


Brant: What I would say is Mesoamericanists don't look at the Book of Mormon, against Mesoamerica and try to justify it against somebody else's theory. We're not trying to say, "This is good, because it's better than that, they had a problem here. But we don't have that problem here." That's not what we're concerned with. What we're concerned with is saying, "Yeah, here's a geography. Once we have the geography, what else does that teach us?" And so we're very focused on learning that.

We start with a difference in terminology. Brant uses the perfectly legitimate term "Mesoamericanists." However, that term glides over the key differences in our approaches. That's why I use the term "M2Cers" to show it's not just "Mesoamerica" we're discussing, but the "Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs (M2C)" theory. Some M2Cers euphemistically refer to the "Mesoamerican/limited geography" model to avoid mentioning Cumorah. We'll discuss below why Cumorah is such a critical point. 

Obviously, Brant is speaking for himself when he says he's not comparing models. Book of Mormon Central has an elaborate "test" that they use to evaluate pros and cons of alternative theories. In my view, their "test" is flawed because it is based on the assumptions implicit in their M2C models. As we'll see, Brant's views are also based on M2C-driven assumptions that are not unreasonable, but are nevertheless arbitrary and outcome oriented.

I completely agree with Brant when he says: "once we have the geography, what else does that teach us?" However, we have different views on what it teaches, as we'll see below.

They have a different purpose in mind, they have different interests. The few times that we have sort of
interacted and said, "Well, here are some of the things that we see as issues and problems with the geography you're putting forth." They're not very interested in them, and tend to dismiss them. 

Brant may be referring to something I'm unaware of, but I've engaged with all the issues and problems that M2Cers have identified to me. I think it's important for everyone to be crystal clear about the facts, assumptions, inferences, theories and hypotheses they use. If I haven't addressed any of the issues and problems that M2Cers have raised, I hope some M2Cers will let me know. My email for this topic is lostzarahemla@gmail.com.

So, if they're not interested in discussions on
that level, they can go build their models, and try to do what we're doing here. So, it isn't so much that we don't acknowledge them. We have tried. We do see some problems with the geography. But the focus isn't to try to diminish anything else in the Book of Mormon, if somebody else comes up with a good argument, yeah, that's wonderful. I haven't seen any that fit the detail and complexity that I see in Mesoamerica. So, I'd much rather spend my time on that than arguing with somebody else over geography. I'm not interested.

Another great point by Brant that I agree with to the extent he is arguing in favor of multiple working hypotheses. People can believe whatever they want, and if a particular theory works for someone, then great. We can have unity in diversity. 

That said, I don't find his point about "detail and complexity" very useful because that amounts to John Sorenson's "correspondences" approach. The M2Cers use one of two methodologies. First, they find elements of Mesoamerican culture that are fairly ubiquitous in human cultures (e.g., banners) and then claim it "corresponds" to something in the Book of Mormon. Second, they find an element of Mesoamerican culture and then read it into the text (e.g., volcanoes). These methodologies do generate some detail and complexity, but it's merely bias confirmation; i.e., as Brant says here, once they find the geography, what does that teach us? Naturally, every proposed setting can teach us something about the text; if we bend the text to fit the setting, we can find all kinds of details between the lines.

GT: Even though you're not interested, do you see any strengths and or weaknesses that you'd like to share with the Heartland theory?
Brant: The strengths and weaknesses of the Heartland theory? GT: Yes, of the Heartland theory. Brant: I think it has two strengths. One is it allows people the sort of culturally historical ties to the New York 
Hill as the Hill Cumorah. Without question, that was a theme in the early church, people believed that. And the fact that they make a geography that fits, that allows them to keep that, that's a strength. 

Here I don't disagree with what Brant says, but with what he doesn't say; i.e. what he omits. This is the censorship problem I have with M2Cers.

A basic premise of M2C is that Joseph Smith eventually (and ignorantly or speculatively) adopted a false tradition about Cumorah that originated with someone else. They say (condescendingly) that "people" in the "early church" believed the Hill Cumorah was in New York because of "culturally historical ties." I refer to this as the "erroneous speculation" narrative. 

While I appreciate their need to frame the Cumorah issue this way, and it makes sense for them to shift the focus away from the contrary evidence from Church history, Latter-day Saints would be much better informed if the M2Cers made their position clear instead of obscuring the issue the way Brant does here.

The M2C scholars have successfully used the "erroneous speculation" narrative to repudiate relevant Church history sources. I'll review a few here. Lucy Mack Smith reported that Moroni identified the hill as Cumorah the first time he met Joseph Smith, and that Joseph referred to the hill as Cumorah before he even got the plates. The M2Cers say Lucy was influenced by the "later" false tradition about Cumorah, but as early as 1830, Oliver Cowdery and Parley P. Pratt were teaching the Lamanites that the hill was named Cumorah anciently. Later, of course, as Assistant President of the Church, Oliver explicitly taught that the hill in New York is the very hill identified in the text as Cumorah and Ramah. He also described visiting the repository of Nephite records in the hill. David Whitmer reported that he first heard the name Cumorah in 1829 directly from the divine messenger who was taking the abridged plates from Harmony to Cumorah. There are additional references, and the New York Cumorah has been taught repeatedly, including by members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference.

In my view, the "erroneous speculation" narrative is irrational. The Book of Mormon text never mentions America or even the western hemisphere. The only reason why we focus on "the Americas" is because the same people who taught the New York Cumorah said the events took place "in this country" or "on this continent." There is no rational basis to reject what they taught about Cumorah while adhering to what they said about America.
Rather than reject the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah because those teachings contradict their own interpretation of the text, students of the Book of Mormon should incorporate the New York Cumorah into their interpretations of the text.  

It's a strength that it fits the
most common reading of certain prophecies about Promised Land.
I probably read those very differently, but they're very much in line with how they have been traditionally read. And I think that also is a strength. 

Here I agree with Brant that there are multiple ways to read those prophecies. At any rate, in our day the prophets have shifted the focus from specific gathering places in America to gathering places throughout the world; i.e., the stakes of Zion instead of a central gathering place. 

I think the weakness is everything else. Let me give you an example. The last time I
remember looking at the Mesoamerican [Heartland] geographic model, you have to find a narrow neck of land. Every Book of Mormon geographer knows you have to find a narrow neck of land. 

Here is one of the best examples of disagreements about the text. People frequently ask me, "Where is the narrow neck of land?" I always reply, "Ether 10:20." That is the only reference in the text to the narrow neck of land.

There are two other references geographical necks: a "narrow neck" (but not of land), and a "small neck of land." Many people infer that these different terms refer to the same feature. I agree that's a plausible reading, but it's not a mandatory reading or even the most logical reading. 

An alternative reading sees these as different features; hence, the different terms.

Additionally, in Joseph Smith's era, the term "narrow neck" was commonly used to refer to geographical features much smaller than on a hemispheric or continental scale. I've documented multiple uses of the term by George Washington and others during the Revolutionary War describing the locations of battles, troop movements, etc.  

And if I remember correctly, they were looking at
a narrow neck of land just north of like, Buffalo and the Great Lakes, there's a narrow neck that kind of leads up, fits narrow neck really, really well. It doesn't fit the Book of Mormon text, because that narrow neck is northwest of the Hill Cumorah in New York. And so that puts the Hill Cumorah to the
southeast of the narrow neck. In the text of the Book of Mormon, it says you have to go north of the narrow neck and then east in order to get to Cumorah. So, it's completely contrary, you've got got the wrong narrow neck, if that's your narrow neck. And I don't know where you're going to find a narrow neck anywhere south of that. So the narrow neck doesn't work. 

The idea of a single "narrow neck of land" connecting the land northward and the land southward relies on another premise; i.e., that the terms "northward" and "southward" are proper nouns instead of relative terms. In my view, those terms are obviously relative. Salt Lake City is "northward" if you're writing from Provo, but it's "southward" if you're writing from Ogden. The text gives us many proper nouns of particular locations, both cities and lands. The M2C assumption that Mormon used vague geographical directions to refer to specific, unchanging areas throughout the text introduces unnecessary ambiguity and confusion. It is much simpler and consistent with ordinary usage of language to interpret these terms as relative.

Distances have a problem. 

The text never delineates distances except as a function of time. There are no miles or kilometers. People have speculated a wide range of possible distances, such as "it was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite." (Alma 22:32)

Even in this passage, Mormon tells us nothing about the mode of travel, yet people have elaborated on this to derive precise distances.

There's no horses to ride on. So, you're on foot traffic. rivers, right?"
Yeah. And he does river travel. There was an article that I know about and will not mention until it's published, but I've read the draft. And it looks at the idea of river travel. And, absolutely, river traveled down river helps. Up river, it's faster to walk in many cases. So, the rivering idea is really good if you only have to move in one direction. So, if they're always going downstream, it works. As long as nobody ever goes in the other direction, it works. Except they always go in the other direction. So it's just not going to work in the article that will give the documentation on that--well, the way publication works, you won't see it for a year, but somewhere a year from now.

Obviously we'll have to wait for the article, but the text tells us the Nephites sent for much timber "by the way of shipping" and that Mormon didn't have time/space to explain "their shipping and building of ships."  

We can speculate why Mormon didn't take the time to explain their shipping and building of ships, but we can't legitimately infer they did not build ships or engage in shipping. The idea that such shipping could only occur in one direction strikes me as preposterous. Who would go to the trouble of building a ship for a single downriver voyage?

Certainly the Native Americans used the rivers in both directions. Actually, if rivers were useful only for downriver traffic, everyone would end up at the sea. Lewis and Clark took their keelboat and other vessels upstream all the way from St. Louis to modern day Montana. They navigated with oars, sails, poles and towlines. 

I've agreed with M2Cers that there is a north-flowing river from the land of Nephi to the land of Zarahemla. For a long time I was told there are no such rivers in North America, but everyone forgot about the Tennessee River, which flows northward from the Chattanooga area (Nephi) to southern Illinois (land of Zarahemla--but not the city of Zarahemla). 

In response, I've had people tell me that's not possible because the Tennessee River has some drop offs that a canoe couldn't navigate. Then it's a question not only of the river's geology 2,000 years ago, but also of portage.

I look forward to engaging the topic of rivers in the Book of Mormon. Hopefully we can all reach a point where we agree on baseline facts. Then we can make our assumptions clear, set out our inferences, theories and hypotheses, and present multiple working hypotheses for everyone to consider.


Let's return to the point about Cumorah.

The Cumorah issue implicates not only the proper interpretation of the text, but the credibility and reliability of the prophets as well as the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

I've pointed out before that rejecting what Joseph and Oliver taught about the New York Cumorah created a precedent for rejecting other things they taught, including the translation of the plates with the Nephite interpreters that accompanied the plates.

In my view, untethering the Book of Mormon from the New York Cumorah untethers it from history. That's how we've ended up with BYU and CES teaching fantasy map versions of Book of Mormon geography that show Cumorah anywhere but New York. 

Repudiating the prophets in favor of the theories of scholars, especially when those scholars' best explanation for Book of Mormon geography is a fantasy land, corrodes confidence in the teachings of the prophets generally, but also supports the narrative that the Book of Mormon is fiction.

A return to the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah offers the potential for greater unity in the Church, greater confidence in all the teachings of the prophets, and greater understanding of the text itself.

1 comment:

  1. The Indians, “…who have no way of traveling except on the Hoof, make nothing of going 25 miles a day, and carrying their little Necessities at their backs, and Sometimes a Stout Pack of Skins into the bargain." (William Byrd's Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina. New York: Dover Publications, 1987. Page 266.)

    There is a raft of evidence either through oral tradition or record of history. These people knew how to move! I mean, they could cover hundreds of miles on foot and by river or short periods of time. If running, they could cover more! 50 miles a day on foot! 100 miles a day on foot! Running isn’t against the rules for these Meso guys, is it?