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.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Brant Gardner's latest on the Book of Mormon geography

In the interest of clarity, charity and understanding, we'll discuss Brant Gardner's interview on the YouTube channel "Mormonism with the Murph," found here:


First, kudos to Murph for his thoughtful, informed questions. His channel is gaining an audience because of his preparation and pleasant, inquisitive and intelligent demeanor.

Second, kudos to Brant for appearing on social media to discuss these issues that he has written and spoken about for many years. 

This episode focuses on Brant's excellent book, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, which was published in 2011.

Brant is a staunch defender of both SITH and M2C. He's articulate and thoughtful, and he's a nice guy. This interview, like his books, might be persuasive to those who accept his assumption, inferences, and biases, and we give him the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. 

When we're all looking at the same evidence (and all the evidence), it is not the facts that lead to different outcomes, but instead our assumptions, inferences, theories and biases. 

The pursuit of clarity requires examination of those assumptions, inferences, theories and biases, especially when they are not made explicit. Clarity, combined with charity, leads to understanding one another with "no more contention." [see www.nomorecontention.com]

But sometimes we have to step back and make sure we're all looking at the same evidence--and all the evidence. 

As a thoughtful scholar, Brant emphasizes the need for accuracy and thoroughness. But in this post, Brant inexplicably misstates underlying facts and makes claims and accusations that don't hold up. Whether consideration of accurate facts would impact his assumptions, inferences, and theories remains to be seen. Because Brant is a good guy and an honest scholar, surely he will correct these errors, explain why he made them, and adjust his positions accordingly. 

Third, kudos for everyone involved with these discussions because when we get into specifics we can  finally reach more clarity, charity and understanding; i.e., no more contention.

Fourth, I'm fine with people believing whatever they want. People can choose whom and what to believe. (Article of Faith 11)

Ideally, everyone would seek to make informed decisions based on all the evidence, fully aware of the assumptions, inferences, and theories that lead to the hypotheses that form their worldview (the FAITH model). With those elements laid out (clarity), we would all have empathy (charity) for one another. Instead of contention, we'd have understanding and no compulsion to try to convince others.

But we're not there yet, neither in the world as a whole nor as Latter-day Saints. It seems that few people seek clarity, charity and understanding. Instead, to the extent they think about issues at all, they accept evidence that confirms their biases and reject evidence that contradicts their biases. People do that all the time. That's how people cope with cognitive dissonance. And that leads to contention, not understanding.

But we can overcome that through clarity, charity and understanding.

What I'm not fine with is scholars purporting to base their views on facts and then deliberately misstating the facts, omitting facts that contradict their theories, and otherwise using sophistry instead of clarity. Readers can decide for themselves how this applies to Brant's interview.


The podcast is 2.5 hours long. In this post, we'll discuss a few of the key points Brant made about the geography issue. We'll use the transcript from youtube with time code for those interested in referring to the youtube interview.

Tomorrow we'll discuss what Brant said about the translation issue.

YouTube transcript


3:19 Murph: in the last episode there's one um sort of pushback that I forgot to ask you about that people would raise against the mesoAmerican geographical model so we'll talk about that briefly.

Zelph the white Lamanite which I believe comes when Joseph Smith and some of the church leaders are sort of marching in Zion's camp and he points…

I think he writes in a letter how they cross like the plains of the Nephites to his wife Emma

Joseph’s letter to Emma in the Joseph Smith Papers (JSP), describing his activities while traveling west across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois:


The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest men and sincere men, wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionaly the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity,14 and gazing upon a country the fertility, the splendour and the goodness so indescribable, all serves to pass away time unnoticed,

and then there's some


sources or accounts of there being like a skeleton and he says that's Zelph the white Lamanite. I know heartlanders would use that to support oh The Book of Mormon happened here in North America.

What's your take on that on Zelph the white Lamanite?


Note 14 above in the JSP:

On 3 June, the Camp of Israel passed through the vicinity of what is now Valley City, Illinois, where several members of the camp climbed a large mound. At the top, they uncovered the skeletal remains of an individual JS reportedly identified as Zelph, a “white Lamanite.” Archeologists have since identified the mound as Naples–Russell Mound #8 and have classified it as a Hopewell burial mound of the Middle Woodland period of the North American pre-Columbian era (roughly 50 BC to AD 250). (Godfrey, “The Zelph Story,” 31, 34; Farnsworth, “Lamanitish Arrows,” 25–48.)


Brant: I think first of all it's important to note that it's a lamanite and not a nephite

Brant is correct that Zelph was identified as a Lamanite. However, the identification was in the context of the larger identification of the Nephites and the great last battle. E.g., Wilford Woodruff recorded this in his journal:

Zelph was a large thick set man and a man of God he was a warrior under the great prophet ^Onandagus^ that was known from the hill Camorah ^or east sea^ to the Rocky mountains. The above knowledge Joseph receieved in a vision.


the second thing is they talk about going over the planes of uh you know what is it the plains of the lamanites they're plains anyway I think if I remember right but I yeah


but they're not mentioned in the Book of Mormon so this is not a book of Mormon geographic location uh this is some


location somewhere but it isn't mentioned in the Book of Mormon

Comment: Brant says JS referred to the “plains of the Lamanites.” Murph doesn’t correct him, but we can all read the account above, where Joseph writes “plains of the Nephites.” 

Maybe Brant simply misspoke, but in the context of his interview, this seems like deliberate misinformation to persuade unsuspecting viewers. 

Brant says the plains are “not mentioned” in the text. While the generalized phrase “plains of the Nephites” is not specifically used in the current text (we can’t know what the 116 pages said), we have several references to Nephite "plains" that were significant in the war chapters and during the destruction before Christ’s visit. In one passage, a specific "plains" is identified "the plains of Nephihah," but in other passages the term is generalized, just as Joseph used the term to describe Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. 

There were also Jaredite plains, supporting the idea that the Jaredites lived in the same area as the Nephites.

Nephite plains:

I saw the plains of the earth, that they were broken up;(1 Nephi 12:4)

20 And it came to pass they sent embassies to the army of the Lamanites, which protected the city of Mulek, to their leader, whose name was Jacob, desiring him that he would come out with his armies to meet them upon the plains between the two cities. But behold, Jacob, who was a Zoramite, would not come out with his army to meet them upon the plains(Alma 52:20)

And it came to pass that when they had come to the city of Nephihah, they did pitch their tents in the plains of Nephihah, which is near the city of Nephihah.

 19 Now Moroni was desirous that the Lamanites should come out to battle against them, upon the plains(Alma 62:18–19)

Jaredite plains:

28 And it came to pass that Shared fought against him for the space of three days. And it came to pass that Coriantumr beat him, and did pursue him until he came to the plains of Heshlon.

 29 And it came to pass that Shared gave him battle again upon the plains; and behold, he did beat Coriantumr, and drove him back again to the valley of Gilgal. (Ether 13:28–29)

15 And it came to pass that Lib did pursue him until he came to the plains of Agosh. And Coriantumr had taken all the people with him as he fled before Lib in that quarter of the land whither he fled.

 16 And when he had come to the plains of Agosh he gave battle unto Lib, (Ether 14:15–16)

Brant should explain why he misrepresented the scriptures this way.


we know that uh you know some of the peoples came North there is no reason to believe that we don't have lamanites moving North after the end of The Book of Mormon

M: so it's like uh here you go the lamanite

B: yep


yeah I mean having lamanites that are northward is not unusual,

Comment: Brant’s point that Lamanites may have moved north is a red herring. Everyone agrees that the Lamanites likely migrated in all directions after the end of the Book of Mormon.

Brant simply doesn't address the point that Joseph specifically identified Nephites while crossing Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. They were roving over their mounds and picking up their bones “as proof of the divine authenticity” of the Book of Mormon.

Nor does Brant mention that Joseph also identified Jaredites in this area.

so you know having him there uh the only thing you have to worry about is this


idea of being a white lamanite and what does that mean and the definition that you would get from The Book of Mormon would have been that he was a converted lamanite

When he says "the only thing you have to worry about" he's referring to the M2C advocates. Proponents of the North American setting (Heartland) don't worry about anything regarding the Zelph account.

Brant’s idea is congruent with what Wilford Woodruff recorded:

His name was Zelph he was a white lamanite, a large thick set man, and a man of God. The curse had been taken from him because of his righteousness.


and that must mean that somewhere as Mormon or Moroni is doing these travels he managed to talk to some

people and you know convert a few people perhaps some who uh you know kept that tradition going

Brant’s speculation here ignores the historical accounts and merely confirms his M2C bias and worldview.

Instead of engaging in such raw speculation, we ought to look at the actual historical accounts.

For some events in Church history, Wilford Woodruff is the sole source (much like Lucy Mack Smith for JS’s early years). In the case of Zelph, there are multiple accounts from different people who were present. Naturally, each recorded different elements of the event. A good overview is here:


Woodruff’s account is the most detailed, so I’ll include it here.

From his journal, May 1834:

we visited many of the mounds which were flung up by the ancient inhabitants of this Continent probably by the Nephites & Lamanites[.]

we visited one of these Mounds and several of the brethren dug into it and took from it the bones of a man[.] Brother Joseph had a vission respecting the person he said he was a white Lamanite the curs was taken from him or at least in part[.] he was killed in battle with an arrow the arrow was found among his ribs, one of his thigh bones was broken this was done by a stone flung from a sling in battle years before his death his name was Zelph some of his bones were brought into the camp and the thigh bone which was broken was put into my waggon and I carried it to Missouri.

Zelph was a large thick set man and a man of God he was a warrior under the great prophet ^Onandagus^ that was known from the hill Camorah ^or east sea^ to the Rocky mountains. The above knowledge Joseph receieved in a vision.


From the History of Zion’s Camp:

On the tops of the mounds were stones which personated the apperance of three altars, one above the other, according to the ancient order, and the remains of bones were shown over the surface of the ground.

Wilford Woodruff says, "this mound was considered three hundred feet above the Illinois river, we had a shovel and a hoe with us, and while we were desending the mound, the Prophet Joseph stopped suddenly and pointed to the ground and said. "Brotherin dig in there."

And when we had dug one foot we uncovered the skeleton of a man, which was entire, and in a good state of perservation, and between his ribs in the back bone was found the stone point of a lamanitish arrow, whiched produced his death. Milton Homes took the arrow out of the back bone, also one of the thigh bones which had been broken, and took it to camp, and put it into my wagon; and at noon while resting in camp, the Prophet Joseph, while lying in his wagon, was rap[p]ed in vision, and the history of this man whoes body we discovered, was shown unto him.

His name was Zelph he was a white lamanite, a large thick set man, and a man of God. The curse had been taken from him because of his righteousness. He was a warrior, and a chiefton He fought under the prophet Onondagus, who held domion from the east to the west sea including the Rocky-mountains. Zelph had his thigh bone broken from the sling of a stone, while in battle, many years before his death. He was killed in battle by the arrow found in his back bone, dureing a great struggle with the Lamenites, and I Wilford Woodruff, carried the thigh bone to Clay County and burried it in that country, I intended to have burried it in Jackson County, thinking that some prophet might have prophisied to him that the members of Zions camp whould have taken his bones with them to Zion and buried them their, when they went up to redeem Zion; But not having the privlage of gowing to Jackson County, I buried it in Clay County.


so we don't know how long after the Book of Mormon closed


that that would have been there um if we actually had that skeleton and we dug it up archaeologically we'd found that it... we would find that it came from time period long after the Book of Mormon

The note in the JS Papers quoted above explains otherwise:

Archeologists have since identified the mound as Naples–Russell Mound #8 and have classified it as a Hopewell burial mound of the Middle Woodland period of the North American pre-Columbian era (roughly 50 BC to AD 250).

In other words, archaeologists date the mound to Book of Mormon time frames. They have also sourced the artifacts in the mound to the Rocky Mountains and upper eastern Midwest, corroborating what Wilford Woodruff recorded.

Brant the anthropologist surely knows this, but he misled his viewers here. 

M: okay so you wouldn't see that as necessarily undermining the Mesoamerican geographical model and do you also think that this was Joseph Smith maybe guessing because you know you don't believe, we don't believe that he knew uh where the Book of Mormon took place

B: yeah, we don’t

M: do you think he was sorted guessing or speculating

Brant claims that “we don’t" believe Joseph knew where the Book of Mormon took place. He's speaking on behalf of M2C proponents, of course.

I’ve discussed this before:

The entire premise for M2C is that the scholars know what Joseph Smith was secretly thinking, and that among Joseph's thoughts was ignorance about the Book of Mormon and its setting (despite what Joseph actually said). This is how they deal with the extreme cognitive dissonance they experience when they confront Joseph's actions and statements.

Here is an example. In 2005, BYU and the Library of Congress sponsored a two-day academic conference to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith's birth. I blogged about it 
here. The conference proceedings included these statements about what Joseph was thinking in his inner thoughts:

- Joseph Smith did not fully understand the Book of Mormon.
- One thing all readers share with Joseph is a partial understanding of the book’s complexities.
- Over the last sixty years, Hugh Nibley, John Sorenson, and other scholars have shown the Book of Mormon to be “truer” than Joseph Smith or any of his contemporaries could know.
- Consequently,  what  Joseph  Smith  knew  and  understood about the book ought to be research questions rather than presumptions.  Thanks  in  large  part  to  his  critics,  it  is  becoming  clear that Joseph Smith did not fully understand the geography, scope, historical scale, literary form, or cultural content of the book.
- In 1842, after reading about ancient cities in Central America, Joseph speculated that Book of Mormon lands were located there.
- Joseph did not know exactly where Book of Mormon lands were... he considered their location  an  important  question  addressable  through scholarship.

that incident for some people has taken as you know Revelation and some


people is just a discussion or speculation you know however you want to read that um I would say that most of the scholars would not accept it as a revelation


"For some people" means those who were present at the time and those who accept what they said.

The M2C scholars don’t accept it as a revelation, but Brant offers no rationale for rejecting what Woodruff and others recorded except that Zelph contradicts their theories.

As we saw above, Wilford Woodruff explained Joseph had a vision:

The published history of Zion's Camp gives an account of the bones of a man which we dug out of a mound. His name was Zelph. The Lord showed the Prophet the history of the man in a vision.



even in the Heartland for the people who would say yes this was a revelation it would be a revelation that's so late that it wouldn't have anything to do with the Book of Mormon or a book of Mormon geography it would simply say you know this is you know something that occurred after the Book of Mormon ended

Brant repeats his misstatement about the dating of Zelph’s mound and the artifacts there as we saw above.

B: Mark Wright gave a paper at


Fair several years ago called um Heartland is Hinterland he argued that after the Book of Mormon there would have been a northern migration we know that there was a northern migration of peoples from uh mesoamerica up into at least the southeast uh so the fact that there is a lamanite that you might have known something you know might have either

retained something because of uh you know Heritage of the nephite because

they didn't all die you know the nation was gone but never not every single Nephite was dead or somebody that Moroni had converted but still after the Book of Mormon.

M: okay right okay so it's possible that Joseph Smith could have been uh not wrong then in saying that that's um Zelf yeah it could have been something that maybe came from the book

B:  yeah I mean for those people who want to believe that that was a revelation and


that that's exactly what happened there is a context of which we can see that happening

Wright’s paper has lots of problems, but it was published anyway in the Interpreter because all of the “peer reviewers” (if any) already agreed with Wright’s premise. They are “peer approvers,” not reviewers.

I’ve written about that paper quite a bit. Here’s a sample:

One of the most insightful articles on this topic is "Heartland as Hinterland: The Mesoamerican Core and North American Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography," published here. It deals with a few of Joseph's actions that I listed above, such as the letter to Emma and the Zelph account.

Of course, the article never mentions Letter VII or the revelations in the D&C.

Instead, it relies on the anonymous Times and Seasons articles, erroneously attributing them to Joseph and then using them to reinterpret and invert the plain language of what Joseph actually wrote.

Here's how the article handles Joseph's letter to Emma and his revelation about Zelph: "The individuals and geographic features that are named in these accounts are nowhere to be found in the text of the Book of Mormon. They are external to its history."

Joseph explained that he had learned about the Book of Mormon people even before he translated the plates, and his mother confirmed this, but the M2C scholars reject what he Lucy said. Instead, they insist Joseph knew nothing except what he translated.

The reason they take this position is obvious: it puts them not only on an even playing field with Joseph (because they're both limited to interpreting the text), but (in their minds) it makes their interpretations superior to Joseph's because they have PhDs and decades of more recent archaeological, linguistic, and other research.


When you consider theories about Book of Mormon geography, consider whether the proponents are relying on actual evidence, or instead on their subjective interpretations of what they think Joseph's inner thoughts were.

[the interview proceeds with a discussion of the translation]




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