A/B test on explaining Cumorah

A/B test of explaining the New York Cumorah

I'm posting two alternative approaches to explaining the New York Cumorah. Let me know which one you like best by sending an email to lostzarahemla@gmail.com. Just put Option A or Option B in the subject line.
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Option A. 

Missionary Work and the Keystone - education and fortification

Main points:

  • 1.      Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery provided a powerful missionary tool that has been overlooked in recent years. Missionary and retention work has suffered as a result.
  • 2.      Educating missionaries and members about this tool will fortify their faith and put them back on the course established by the founding prophets. This will improve missionary work and retention.


Preach My Gospel, Chapter 5, includes this quotation from President Ezra Taft Benson:

Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. The enemies of the Church understand this clearly. This is why they go to such great lengths to try to disprove the Book of Mormon, for if it can be discredited, the Prophet Joseph Smith goes with it.

Today, the enemies of the Church use the Internet to try discredit the Book of Mormon. This is why missionaries have the most success in areas where people don’t access the Internet.

Currently, the missionaries’ response to these enemies is to tell people to pray about it. While that is a necessary step, Church leaders starting with Joseph and Oliver recognized it was equally important to respond to critics with facts.

Joseph and Oliver wrote a series of letters (Gospel Topics essays) to present important facts about Church history and doctrine, including the key fact that the Hill Cumorah is in New York. Joseph had his scribes copy these essays into his personal history as part of his life story (Joseph Smith, History 1834-1836, in the Joseph Smith Papers). These essays were originally published in the Messenger and Advocate and republished in the Times and SeasonsMillennial StarGospel ReflectorThe Prophet, and the Improvement Era.Until recent years, most members of the Church were familiar with them—for good reason.

Sandra Tanner’s Lighthouse Ministry in Salt Lake City has a well-known web page (http://www.utlm.org/onlineresources/cumorah.htm) that poses these questions:

in recent years some LDS scholars have stated that the hill in New York is not the Hill Cumorah, scene of the last battle of the Book of Mormon peoples. Who are we to believe? Is a BYU professor more reliable than the President of the LDS Church or an Apostle?

This is a question faced by most missionaries whose investigators access the Internet. The missionaries do not know how to respond because they have never been taught what Joseph and Oliver and the other prophets have taught about the Hill Cumorah. Worse, they have been taught in CES and at BYU that the prophets are wrong about the New York Cumorah.

The Tanner web page includes a copy of the October 16, 1990, letter that was approved by the entire First Presidency and sent from the Office of the First Presidency which states

The Church has long maintained, as attested to by references in the writings of General Authorities, that the Hill Cumorah in western New York state is the same as reference in the Book of Mormon.

While the Church has never taken a position on other aspects of Book of Mormon geography, the New York Cumorah has been well established. The early Apostles included this teaching during the 1840s British Mission to help unlock the door to missionary work. It has been taught by members of the First Presidency in General Conference.

The prophets have consistently taught about the New York Cumorah because that fact supports the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon and overcomes objections that the book is fiction.

As Sandra Tanner points out, though, in recent decades LDS scholars at BYU and CES have been teaching their students that the prophets are wrong. Instead, according to these scholars, the Hill Cumorah is somewhere in Mexico. This teaching has infiltrated much of the Church.

The Academic Cycle



Educating members and missionaries about the New York Cumorah will fortify them and give investigators another reason to read the Book of Mormon for themselves so the Spirit can testify to them of its truthfulness.

Importance. Some say the geography doesn’t matter, but to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, the New York Cumorah mattered a great deal—for the same reason it matters today.

President Cowdery wrote these eight Gospel Topics essays to respond to an anti-Mormon book, Mormonism Unvailed [sic], that was published in Ohio in 1834. Letter VII responds to the book’s claim that the Book of Mormon was copied from a fictional work by Solomon Spaulding. President Cowdery wrote that it was a fact that the final battles of the Jaredites and the Nephites took place in the mile-wide valley west of the Hill Cumorah in New York. This fact takes the Book of Mormon out of the realm of fiction.

The New York Cumorah has been clearly, unambiguously and consistently taught by the prophets ever since. No prophet has ever said Cumorah was anywhere but New York.

In recent years, however, certain LDS scholars have been teaching that the prophets were wrong. They claim there are “two Cumorahs;” i.e., that the New York Cumorah is a false tradition, and that the “real Cumorah” is in southern Mexico. This teaching has spread throughout CES and BYU and has led to confusion and doubt among Church members—especially among youth and missionaries—as well as investigators.

A renewed emphasis on the New York Cumorah benefits the entire Church in three ways:

  • It affirms the consistent teachings of the prophets
  • It places the Book of Mormon in the real world
  • It eliminates the current confusion that causes members to question their faith

NOTE: The New York Cumorah does not resolve the larger question of Book of Mormon geography, about which the Church has never taken a position.
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Option B


Suggestions for Missionary Work - education and fortification

Main point: Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery bequeathed a powerful missionary key that has been overlooked in recent years. Missionary and retention work has suffered as a result.

This key unlocked the door to missionary work in the 1840s British Mission and throughout the Church while Joseph was alive. The key supports the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon and overcomes objections that the book is fiction.

The key is the teaching that the Hill Cumorah is in western New York.

In 1835, President Cowdery declared this was a fact. Joseph endorsed this teaching multiple times, as did the entire First Presidency and every Apostle who addressed the topic. The New York Cumorah has been clearly, unambiguously and consistently taught by the prophets ever since. No prophet has ever said Cumorah was anywhere but New York.

In recent years, however, a group of LDS scholars has begun to teach that the prophets were wrong. They claim there are “two Cumorahs;” i.e., that the New York Cumorah is a false tradition, and that the “real Cumorah” is in southern Mexico. This teaching has spread throughout CES and BYU and has led to confusion and doubt among Church members—especially among youth and missionaries—as well as investigators.

A renewed emphasis on the New York Cumorah benefits the entire Church in three ways:

  • It affirms the consistent teachings of the prophets
  • It places the Book of Mormon in the real world
  • It eliminates the current confusion that causes members to question their faith

NOTE: The New York Cumorah does not resolve the larger question of Book of Mormon geography, about which the Church has never taken a position.

Background

In 1834, when confronted with anti-Mormon claims (the book Mormonism Unvailed), Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery responded with a series of eight essays based on facts. They published the essays—the first Gospel Topics Essays—as letters in the Messenger and Advocate.

The essays were so important that Joseph directed his scribes to copy all eight into his own history as part of his life story (Joseph Smith, History 1834-1836, in the Joseph Smith Papers). An excerpt from Letter I in which Oliver Cowdery explains the facts of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood is canonized within the Pearl of Great Price today.

Joseph encouraged others to republish the essays. They appeared in the Millennial Star (1840), the Gospel Reflector (1841), the Times and Seasons (1841), and the Prophet (1844), the New York City paper edited by Joseph’s brother, William Smith. Later they were republished in theImprovement Era and extensively cited.

Although these essays were ubiquitous during Joseph’s lifetime, they are largely unknown today. Yet they address nearly every one of the specific issues that challenge the faith of members, missionaries and investigators to this day.

A renewed study of all eight essays would benefit Church members, but Letter VII is especially relevant to missionary and retention work.

When President Cowdery ordained the original Twelve Apostles and gave them their Apostolic Charge, he began with this observation: “the minds of men are so constructed, that they will not believe without a testimony of seeing or hearing.”

A few months later, President Cowdery published Letter VII. This essay addresses the anti-Mormon claim that the Book of Mormon is fiction and includes President Cowdery’s testimony about the Hill Cumorah near Palmyra.

At about one mile west [of the Hill Cumorah] rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed…. In this vally [sic] fell the remaining strength and pride of a once powerful people, the Nephites… From the top of this hill, Mormon, with a few others, after the battle, gazed with horror upon the mangled remains of those who, the day before, were filled with anxiety, hope or doubt…. This hill, by the Jaredites, was called Ramah: by it, or around it pitched the famous army of Coriantumr their tents…. In this same spot, in full view from the top of this same hill, one may gaze with astonishment upon the ground which was twice covered with the dead and dying of our fellow men.

The New York Cumorah has been consistently taught by members of the Twelve and the First Presidency ever since, including in General Conference. For example, President Marion G. Romney said this in General Conference:

In the western part of the state of New York near Palmyra is a prominent hill known as the “hill Cumorah.” (Morm. 6:6.) On July twenty-fifth of this year, as I stood on the crest of that hill admiring with awe the breathtaking panorama which stretched out before me on every hand, my mind reverted to the events which occurred in that vicinity some twenty-five centuries ago—events which brought to an end the great Jaredite nation…. This second civilization to which I refer, the Nephites, flourished in America between 600 B.C. and A.D. 400. Their civilization came to an end for the same reason, at the same place, and in the same manner as did the Jaredites’.... I bear you my personal witness that I know that the things I have presented to you today are true—both those pertaining to past events and those pertaining to events yet to come. The issue we face is clear and well defined. The choice is ours.


Elder James E. Talmage affirmed the New York Cumorah in Articles of Faith, one of the few books published by the Church itself. He said:

The final struggles between Nephites and Lamanites were waged in the vicinity of the hill Cumorah, in what is now the state of New York, resulting in the entire destruction of the Nephites, about 400 A. D. The last Nephite representative was Moroni, who…wrote the concluding parts of the Book of Mormon, hid the record in Cumorah, and soon thereafter died. It was this same Moroni who, as a resurrected being, gave the records into the hands of Joseph Smith in the present dispensation.

Nevertheless, in recent years some LDS scholars have claimed that the prophets and apostles are wrong. The Hill Cumorah, they say, is actually in Mexico (or someplace else). They justify their repudiation of the prophets by conflating two separate issues:

(i) the Hill Cumorah in New York, which has been specifically and repeatedly taught by the prophets and apostles at least through 1990, and

(ii) the rest of Book of Mormon geography, about which the Brethren have never given an official statement, considering it a matter that has not been revealed—unlike the New York Cumorah.

Joseph Fielding Smith, both while President of the Quorum of the Twelve and thirty years earlier as a member of the Twelve and Church Historian, specifically warned about the impact of this “two-Cumorahs” theory. He wrote, “Because of this theory some members of the Church have become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith of the Book of Mormon."

The scriptures teach that the way to avoid confusion and contention in the Church is to follow the teachings of the prophets and apostles. (E.g., 3 Nephi 12:1).

Because the scholars have rejected the prophetic teachings about the New York Cumorah—and President Smith’s prophetic warning about the two-Cumorahs theory—many members of the Church have become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon. This confusion extends to investigators and the missionaries who teach them.

Some say the location of Cumorah doesn’t matter. However, it definitely mattered in 1835 when President Cowdery wrote Letter VII. It definitely mattered throughout Joseph’s lifetime. In fact, Letter VII was republished in The Prophet just two days after the martyrdom in Carthage. It mattered whenever it was taught in General Conference.

Early Church leaders recognized the importance of physical evidence (i) to elicit interest in the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon and (ii) to corroborate the spiritual witness. Parley P. Pratt republished Letter VII in the 1840 Millennial Star. He observed that those who don’t respond to the promptings of the Spirit initially may do so after considering the physical evidence. This remains true today.

The British Mission was highly successful as a result of this approach. Brigham Young reported that in one year, they baptized 5,000 converts with only 3,000 copies of the Book of Mormon. Today we have over 150 million copies of the Book of Mormon in print. By that standard, we should be baptizing tens of millions of converts every year.

Although it is not stated outright, this repudiation of the prophets has become part of the standard curriculum at BYU and in CES. CES and BYU have now developed two separate fantasy maps of the Book of Mormon that teach students that Cumorah is not in New York; i.e., they are actively teaching the youth that the prophets and apostles are wrong. Instead, they say, these fantasy maps are the “closest fit” to the descriptions in the text.

This approach places the Book of Mormon squarely in the realm of fiction—exactly the problem Joseph and Oliver addressed when they wrote Letter VII. Plus, teaching the youth that the prophets and apostles were wrong about the New York Cumorah—and that scholars are more qualified to address such topics—opens the door for the youth to question everything else the prophets and apostles have taught. Students are being trained lean upon the learning of the scholars when it comes to “difficult” questions.

On the other hand, reaffirming Letter VII and the teachings of the prophets and apostles about the New York Cumorah fortifies faith in both the Book of Mormon and the teachings of the prophets and apostles.

The scholars have rejected the prophets on the basis of what they claim is “evidence” that Cumorah cannot be in New York. In reality, the physical evidence—archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, etc.—fully supports and corroborates the teachings of the prophets, as the attached materials explain.

In Letter VII, Joseph and Oliver set the Church on a clear course, giving members a strong position to respond to claims that the Book of Mormon is fiction. By changing course, our scholars have not only left members of the Church (and investigators) susceptible to these claims—they have supported these claims by teaching the youth that Cumorah cannot be in New York and that the best explanation is a videogame map of a fantasy world.

The process works like this:

The Academic Cycle

Once this process has been through several academic cycles it becomes self-fulfilling. The initial error becomes difficult to identify.

We therefore suggest that Church leaders reaffirm the teachings of their predecessors regarding the New York Cumorah, for the same reasons that Joseph and Oliver wrote and published Letter VII in the first place. Returning to the course established by the founders of the Church would eliminate the confusion and doubt caused by the “two-Cumorahs” theory.

This course does not constitute a Church position on the rest of the Book of Mormon geography question. That issue remains open for further revelation (as it always has) along with continued study and discovery. But this course does reaffirm the consistent teaching of the prophets and apostles that places Cumorah in the real world.

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