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.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Peer Review of "If there be faults"

Earl Wunderli wrote a book titled "An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself." The book elicited several responses:

The Reviews Are In 


Earl Wunderli recently published a book arguing that the Book of Mormon is 19th century fiction. It was, unsurprisingly, published by Signature Books.

The reviews of Wunderli's work are in, and so far the critical responses to the book have been . . . not that great.

Matthew Roper, Paul Fields, and Larry Bassist, "'If there be faults': Reviewing Earl Wunderli’s An Imperfect Book," online here.

Brant A. Gardner, "The Book with the Unintentionally Self-Referential Title," online here.

Robert A. Rees, "Inattentional Blindness: Seeing and Not Seeing The Book of Mormon," online here.

Robert A. Rees, "Earl Wunderli’s Imperfect Book," online here.

In this post, I'll quickly address the response from Matthew Roper, Paul Fields, and Larry Bassist, a review titled "If there be faults." It was published by BYU Studies 53:3 (2014) here.

The summary provided by BYU Studies is well done:
Earl M. Wunderli rejects the Book of Mormon as a literal history of ancient America. He points to what he thinks are mistakes in the text, pointing to so-called anachronistic words such as steel and silk. Matthew Roper and his colleagues convincingly overturn Wunderli's assertions. The description of Laban's sword of "most precious steel" is now considered accurate since the discovery of a meter-long steel sword at the ancient site of Jericho dating to the time of King Josiah. Likewise, silk has recently been found in eastern Turkey dating to 750 BC.
Wunderli also presents textual evidence using statistics to show that the Book of Mormon is the work of a single author. Roper, Fields, and Bassist demonstrate how Wunderli's methods are lacking, and more rigorous standards clearly reveal multiple authorship in the Book of Mormon.
Roper's discussion of anachronisms is pretty good (except for his suggestion that obsidian bladed "swords" in Mesoamerica are cimeters).

But then Roper gets into some problems. For example, he writes this:

The author ignores or is perhaps unaware of important critiques of his work and the issues he discusses. In An Imperfect Book, he provides a truncated version of his critique of Book of Mormon geography from an earlier Dialogue article (254–67)14 but does not address Brant Gardner’s thoughtful critique of that article.15

I've reviewed Gardner's critique and found it far from responsive. Whether it is thoughtful or not is irrelevant; if it is nonresponsive, it is not worth responding to. I don't blame Wunderli for ignoring Gardner's critique.

Roper's next observations are themselves nonresponsive, mainly because Roper answers by citing his own articles, which themselves have serious problems.

He insists that the text requires readers to see Native American peoples as exclusive descendants of Book of Mormon peoples (267–78) and asserts that defenders of the Book of Mormon “have found little evidence of other people” in the Book of Mormon text. This claim, however, overlooks relevant literature on that matter.16 Knowing of possible reconciliations would probably be of interest to most readers.

Eventually Roper turns "to our main investigation," which is an analysis of "statistical methods" of word usage to determine whether the Book of Mormon is the product of multiple authors.

On this point, I have personal experience with Roper. I approached him to collaborate with me on the Winchester theory of the Times and Seasons articles. He agreed to do so, but then reneged because he didn't like my conclusions. He refused to provide me his database or to test Winchester using his own software. In my view, this is astonishing. Rather than seek the best data, Roper's primary objective appears to be defending his own theories about authorship. Roper's publications don't explain his methodology or his data assumptions. In the case of the Times and Seasons, he won't even reveal what texts he used as samples of Joseph Smith's writings, let alone other candidates.

Consequently, when Wunderli responded to Roper's review here, this observation of his rings true to me:

 Roper et al. may well have thought their statistical analysis superseded all other evidence, but I find they mislead more than enlighten.

Overall, I consider some of Wunderli's observations to be straw men; i.e., he sets up expectations the text doesn't require and then complains when his expectations are not met. For example, he focuses on "therefore" vs "wherefore" to criticize the idea of a word-for-word translation. Of course, it's possible the shift in usage in the text reflects what was actually on the plates and so does not reflect merely a change in Joseph's rendition according to the chronology of the translation process. It's also possible there was no exact word on the plates, so that neither "therefore" nor "wherefore" are perfect translations and they are essentially interchangeable, which explains why Joseph moved from one to the other over time.

I generally agree with Wunderli's critique of the Mesoamerican theory. I also agree with Roper about some of the anachronisms. I'd like to agree with Roper about his authorship analysis, but I have zero confidence in either his objectives or his methodology, based on my own experience, Wunderli's observations, and the content of Roper's published explanations.

I also agree with Wunderli that Roper avoided his main points.

That said, the most puzzling thing to me about the review was why Roper failed to address the main points of my book: my discussion of how Professor Jack Welch, who happens to be editor of BYU Studies, “discovered” that Alma 36 is an extended chiasm but which is really a product of his imagination; my critique of Professor John Sorenson’s attempt to locate geographical sites for the Book of Mormon; my discussion of simple mistakes in the Book of Mormon; my study of the creative ways in which Book of Mormon names were devised; my discussion of the earnest but misguided way in which John Tvednes found Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon; my summary of nineteenth-century scientific and political ideas embedded in the book; and my noting of how the prophesies in the Book of Mormon differ according to whether predicted events were to occur prior to or after Joseph Smith’s day

Some day I'll address each of these. Apart from the Sorenson criticism, I think Wunderli's arguments are not very persuasive because they rely primarily on the disparity between what he expects to see and what the text says.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Peer review: Magleby on Geology and the Book of Mormon

Kirk Magleby has written a useful review of Geology of the Book of Mormon by Jerry D. Grover, Jr. The review is published at BMAF here.

Magleby concludes that Grover's book verifies the Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon, but a careful look shows that Grover has done exactly the opposite. Grover's analysis eliminates Mesoamerica as a possible Book of Mormon setting.

I'll repeat: Grover's book shows that Mesoamerica cannot possibly be the setting for the Book of Mormon.

Before explaining why, I will evaluate some of Magleby's statements. Here's one invoking Terryl Givens:

Terryl Givens, for example, in his foreword to Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book, says "So influential has Sorenson's work on Book of Mormon geography been that there is widespread consensus among believing scholars in support of what is now called the 'Sorenson model,' which identifies the scripture's setting with a Mesoamerican locale." Givens is correct in his assessment of Sorenson's Mesoamerican correlation. Every discipline has a mainstream and mainstream scholars who take Book of Mormon studies seriously are nearly unanimous in support of Mesoamerica as the Book of Mormon homeland. 

There are several fallacies here. First, while I enjoy Givens' works and respect his scholarship, in this excerpt, he is a little loose with his language. When he writes "believing scholars" he seems to mean "scholars who believe in Sorenson's model." In other words, he writes a tautology. And Magleby compounds this tautology by defining "mainstream" as those who support the Meosamerican theory.

Until I came across the mindset reflected by Magleby and so many others at BMAF, I thought I was a mainstream and believing scholar who takes Book of Mormon studies seriously. Actually, now that I've read the materials at BMAF, I question whether the contributors there are serious. Every article I've found so far reflects confirmation bias, not serious scholarship. I've shown this in the peer reviews I've done so far, and this piece by Magleby is just as bad, if not worse, than the others.

Here's another except:

The lack of consensus among Book of Mormon Mesoamericanists provides the fertile intellectual vacuum in which the Heartland movement thrives. 

Now think about this from a scientific and scholarly perspective. In what field of science would an actual scientist write that a lack of consensus creates a "fertile intellectual vacuum?" Besides the horrible metaphors--how can a "vacuum" be "fertile," and how can anything "thrive" in a "vacuum"--Magleby laments a lack of consensus because it allows alternative possibilities! Doesn't the lack of consensus itself suggest something is wrong? By definition, a scientist or scholar sees unanswered questions as opportunities, not as unfortunate cracks that let in a nonconforming viewpoint.

Magleby does make a surprising admission. According to him, the "Heartland movement thrives." So in my peer review, I'll eliminate his metaphor and propose this revision:

The lack of consensus among Book of Mormon Mesoamericanists is inevitable given the questions Mesoamerica cannot answer, leaving the field open to the far more persuasive Heartland movement, which thrives as a result.

Now, to the merits. Magleby writes:

Grover views himself as providing another realm of inquiry that can inform the Mesoamerican discussion and for that he deserves a great deal of credit.

This is undoubtedly true. Grover has provided a detailed explanation of how frequent earthquakes are in Mesoamerica. As Magleby notes, "Areas in white experience virtually no seismicity. In brown areas earthquakes are routine." The brown areas on the map are along the Pacific coast of Mesoamerica. There were 4,168 seismic events in Mexico in 2011 alone, centered primarily in Mesoamerica. In addition, "Guatemala has one of the densest concentrations of volcanoes (24) on the planet."

In other words, earthquakes are common in Mesoamerica. Volcanic eruptions in historic times.
"within confirmed date ranges begin to set the stage for serious comparisons with events described in the Nephite annals." Earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes cause a lot of destruction. Grover proposes that "a simultaneous earthquake along the Veracruz fault and explosive eruption of San Martin Volcano" account for the destruction in 3 Nephi.

What never seems to occur to Magleby (or Grover) is that the geology of Mesoamerica contradicts the Book of Mormon account. Even today, volcanic activity is a major concern of people living in the region, but ancient people--including in Mesoamerica--were familiar with frequent volcanic activity. Volcanoes were significant in Mayan spirituality. Beek.  In fact, the Mayans depended on volcanic ash for their agriculture. NatGeo.

And yet, the text never mentions volcanoes once. This issue has been addressed before, but it remains a major obstacle for Mesoamerica as a Book of Mormon setting.

Worse for the Mesoamerican theory, as Grover explains, earthquakes have long been a frequent occurrence in Mesoamerica. In addition to thousands of seismic events annually, the region has had numerous massive earthquakes. Yet in a thousand years of Book of Mormon history, only one major earthquake takes place (3 Nephi). The presumed quake in Alma 14:26-9 was so minor--and unusual--that the people from the intact city ran out to know the cause of the "great noise" that came from the prison. The description in the text sounds more like an explosion than an earthquake. If earthquakes were as common as Grover demonstrates they would be in Mesoamerica, why would the people be so curious about this minor one?

Magleby describes his own experience with an earthquake in Lima--a stark contrast to the response of the people in Ammonihah, as he demonstrates. It's surprising that he doesn't recognize the incongruity of his observation. His personal experience is typical of that of people who live in regions where earthquakes are common (such as Mesoamerica). The people of Ammonihah could not have lived in such a region.

The Book of Mormon describes a setting where earthquakes were rare--so much so that when even a small one occurred, people rushed to see what happened. Once in a thousand years, the area had a massive earthquake, accompanied by whirlwinds, floods, etc. The area had no volcanoes worth mentioning.

Consequently, Grover deserves a great deal of credit. He has helped eliminate Mesoamerica as a plausible setting for the Book of Mormon.


One last point. Magleby writes about the plains in the Book of Mormon:

There were multiple plains and they were clearly associated with the land northward. 

This should be obvious from the text, but other Mesoamerican advocates have oddly claimed Joseph's reference to the "plains of the Nephites" in Ohio must refer to the "hinterlands."

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Peer Review of Lund's 1842 chronology

John Lund has published a web addendum titled "Joseph Smith's Whereabouts During the 228 Days of His Editorship of the Times and Seasons." It is available here.
This is a useful guide, but it doesn't make the point Lund wants it to.

Here is his introduction, with my comments:

Certain Great Lakes Advocates have made un-researched and unfounded claims about Joseph being out of the general area of Nauvoo during the publication of the September 15, 1842, and the October 1, 1842, editions of the Times and Seasons newspaper. These were the editions that identified the narrow neck of land being in Central America and Zarahemla being in the boundaries of the Guatemala of 1842. Obviously those who want Zarahemla to be somewhere other than where Joseph declared it to be in Guatemala don’t want to be in opposition to the Prophet. They want to find some way to discredit the fact that Joseph authored the articles (this isn't a fact, and it never was; even before the Benjamin Winchester saga came to light, prudent authors noted that the articles were unsigned and the author was unknown. Lund is probably referring to his analysis of stylometry, but his own analysis showed that Joseph couldn't have been the author.) that contradict their own favored location for Zarahemla. Claiming that Joseph was out of town and therefore unavailable to write the editorials in question, was one way to do it. Their logic is flawed. Even if Joseph were out of town did not mean he could not have written the editorials and sent them by messenger to be published. (Actually, that's exactly what Joseph did. In September 1842, Joseph sent the letters that became Sections 127 and 128 to the editor of the Times and Seasons to be published because he was not acting as editor.) However a complete and comprehensive search of Joseph’s whereabouts demonstrated that he was never more than a few miles away from Nauvoo during the publication of the Times and Seasons while he served as editor-in-chief. (He was the named editor, but as the examples of sections 127 and 128 show, Joseph was not "serving" as editor. Someone else was. Woodruff and Taylor were out sick, so who was acting as editor? I've explained elsewhere that it was William Smith, a point that Lund failed to consider.)

The most amazing thing about Lund's daily account of Joseph's whereabouts is the complete absence of any reference to Joseph editing or publishing the Times and Seasons after July 11.

On July 11, Joseph spent "the afternoon at the printing office reading the papers," or, in JSP, "in the P.M. was at the printing office reading mail papers." See 11 July 1842, here: http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-1838-1856-volume-c-1-2-november-1838-31-july-1842?p=522&highlight=Catherwood%20have%20succeeded%20in%20collecting%20in%20the%20interior%20of%20America#!/paperSummary/history-1838-1856-volume-c-1-2-november-1838-31-july-1842&p=530

The last time Joseph mentions writing something for a newspaper was on July 2, 1842. Lund skips over this in his account, presumably because Joseph wrote the piece for the Wasp. But that event creates a precedent for Joseph writing material for his brother William to publish.

On July 15, Joseph's journal indicates he "Issued an Editorial in the Times and Seasons on the Government of God." While this may imply that he wrote it, the term "issued" could also mean that he merely published it. Lund misstates the entry. Lund writes "recorded the editorial..." implying that Joseph wrote it.

The journal entry for 30 July 1842 reads, "My Wife’s Nephew L[orenzo] D. Wasson, who had gone out on a preaching Mission  wrote us this day, from Philadelphia, see Times and Seasons 891. and 892." This indicates that Joseph either published the letter or gave it to someone else to publish.

The letter was actually published in the 15 August Times and Seasons--two weeks after the journal entry. This brings up a key point about the journal Lund uses as a reference (as well as the History of the Church). It was created later (starting around 24 February 1845) as a manuscript journal. It is in the handwriting of Thomas Bullock, compiled by Willard Richards and Bullock. Many of the entries, such as this one, are retrospective in nature. The journal was compiled after Joseph died.

Lund doesn't mention this, but it is a critical fact. In fact, Lund appears to be intentionally misleading on this point. In his entry for June 25th, Lund writes "Recorded that, 'Messrs. Stephens and Catherwood have succeeded in collecting in the interior of America a large amount of relics of the Nephites, or the ancient inhabitants of America treated of in the Book of Mormon...'" but he cites JSP-Journals 2:68, where this does not appear. It does appear in the HC 5:44, because HC was taken from the Bullock manuscript journal; i.e., this passage about the Nephites was added later, during the compilation after Joseph died. At most, it reflects the opinion of Bullock (and maybe Richards), well after the fact.

An unwary reader would not know this, but Lund editorializes here that Joseph "recorded that" Stephens collected Nephite relics, when Lund had to know that Joseph's contemporaneous journal did not include this. The passage he claims Joseph recorded was added later, by Bullock. This kind of misleading compilation casts doubt on all of Lund's work.

On August 15, Lund claims that Joseph "read the Aug 15, 1842, edition of the Times and Seasons. He records in the History of the Church, 'The following editorial appeared in the Times and Seasons: PERSECUTION.'" Despite Lund's citation to JSP-Journals 2:87-92, no such account is contained there. Lund appears to be making another inference from the History of the Church, which Joseph didn't write. The reference to the Persecution article was recorded later, during the compilation of the History of the Church.

This one is particularly ironic because the Persecution article was almost certainly written by William Smith. It refers to Joseph in the third person. It contains rhetoric typical of William's editorials in the Wasp, both in terms of linguistics and in subject matter. The 15 August Times and Seasons constitutes evidence of William's role at the Times and Seasons, as author, editor, and publisher.

For August 21, 1842, Lund claims "Sidney Rigdon's experience was written by Joseph Smith." There is zero evidence that Joseph wrote this. In fact, it definitely was not. The entry in his journal is written by William Clayton, and refers to Joseph in the third person. It describes Rigdon visiting Hyrum and mentions that Orson Pratt decided to go preaching. There is no indication that Joseph was even present for any of these events; in fact, the entry starts out by noting Joseph was in the room over the store. The separate Times and Seasons article about this event (published on 15 September) was unsigned and could have been written by anyone, but William Smith, in the Wasp, had written on this topic. The note in JSP Journal 2:97 reads:
Difficulties between JS and members of Rigdon’s family had existed for several months. Rigdon’s son-in-law George W. Robinson had recently published his withdrawal from the church, claiming that “scandalous attacks [had], at several times, been made on myself, in connection with Mr. Rigdon.” The Wasp responded by publishing statements about Robinson’s allegedly dishonest business dealings. (JS, Journal, 12 and 13 May 184228 June 184229 Aug. 1842; George W. Robinson, “Letter from Nauvoo,” Quincy [IL] Whig, 23 July 1842, [2]; “G. W. Robinson,” The Wasp, 30 July 1842, [2].)  

The most likely author of the Times and Seasons account is William Smith.

On August 22, Lund claims Joseph wrote in the Book of the Law of hte Lord, when it was completely dictated.

On August 27th, Joseph was in the assembly room. He spent these days at home and going to meetings, but there is not a single mention of him going to the printing office.

Lund does mention the letters that became Sections 127 and 128, but he omits the critical comment in the Times and Seasons about the September 1 letter. The editor introduces it by writing this:

"The following letter was read to the Saints in Nauvoo, last Sunday week, and a copy forwarded to us for publication:-and cordially we give it a hearty welcome, and a happy spread among those who love the truth for the truth's sake."

Joseph Smith did not write the letter and then forward it to himself for publication. Someone else was publishing the Times and Seasons.

On September 21, Joseph met with Elder Taylor concerning the printing office, but they met in the large room over the store. Why not meet at the printing office itself?

On September 22, Joseph was at home, "arranging with Remmick concerning moving printing press..., buying paper, &c." Again, why not meet at the printing office? This discussion of printing office business affairs, combined with the complete lack of mention of any editing activities, all taking place away from the printing office itself, supports the conclusion that Joseph was not acting as editor.

Even on October 1st, Joseph says he "would have a notice published" about the temple committee accounts. He doesn't say he would publish the notice because he was having someone else do the publishing.

Lund's work is valuable for showing that Joseph was mostly in Nauvoo or in close proximity, but it is also valuable for demonstrating that Joseph had no involvement with the editorial or publishing activities at the Times and Seasons.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Magleby's Trifecta

Kirk Magleby offers "Book of Mormon Trifecta" as his solution to Book of Mormon geography. Basically he criticizes the Sorenson model and moves the geography a little south and east, emphasizing Guatemala.

I can't find any explanation for why he's looking in Central America in the first place. If it's the 1842 Times and Seasons articles, then his rationale has disappeared now that we know Benjamin Winchester wrote those articles. If he is superimposing an abstract map, then that might make sense, but I don't see his abstract map in this article.

The abstract map approach is a good idea. In fact, my chiastic geography does sort of fit over Central America, albeit with some important problems.

At least Magleby seems to have considered several different areas, unlike Sorenson who excluded everything but his chosen area.

I like the way Magleby uses google Earth. Now if I can only get him to look a little north...

Peer review of John Lund trying to defend Mesoamerica

John Lund has provided a long piece on the Book of Mormon and the Law of Moses. It's a helpful contribution in many ways, but he stumbles when he advocates the Mesoamerican setting.

Here is an example of his assertions: For example, the Lamanites came to battle dressed only in a loincloth and their heads were shaven from 544 BC (Enos 1:20) to AD 21 (3 Nephi 4:7). It is difficult to believe that the Lamanites would come to battle naked except for a loincloth in a climate like Buffalo, New York, or Zarahemla, Iowa, that was not conducive to year-round nakedness.

3 Nephi 4:7 actually says:
And it came to pass that they did come up to battle; and it was in the sixth month; and behold, great and terrible was the day that they did come up to battle; and they were girded about after the manner of robbers; and they had a lamb-skin about their loins, and they were dyed in blood, and their heads were shorn, and they had head-plates upon them; and great and terrible was the appearance of the armies of Giddianhi, because of their armor, and because of their being dyed in blood.

So while Lund wants his readers to believe the Lamanites were dressed only in loincloths, the actual text here says they wore armor, including head-plates. The wearing of lamb skin around the loins is not exclusive of other clothing; it is symbolic. https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/JBMRS/article/viewFile/19817/18384

There are accounts in other parts of the world of people wearing a lamb skin around the loins in combination with blankets of skins. E.g., http://bit.ly/lambskincloth

True, in Alma 43:20, the Lamanites were naked except for a loin cloth, but the Nephites were dressed in thick clothing and breastplates and arm plates and head plates. In hot, humid Mesoamerica, such clothing would be a detriment, not a benefit. (I know from personal experience, having gotten heat stroke in the jungle just because I was wearing jeans instead of light pants.) Note too that only the Lamanites were naked; the Zoramites and Amalekites were clothed. The fact that on a few occasions the scriptures say the Lamanites wore only loin cloths doesn't mean they didn't wear more clothes at other times.

Lund cites Alma 51:33 and suggests that nowhere in North America can there be "the heat of the day" between March 21 and April 25th. One wonders whether Lund engages in anything other than confirmation bias when he conducts research. A 10-second google search produces this:


Lund claims "the North American continent was in a cooler cycles in 67 BC than it is today" but his link doesn't work. At any rate, the climate is always subject to heat waves. We just happen to have a record of one to show it's possible.

Meanwhile, Lund claims the Nephites are fighting in armor and thick clothing in 80-90 degree weather with high humidity (and as much as 8 inches of rain per month).

In Ohio, the museums depict the ancient inhabitants as both wearing woven clothing and loincloths. It seems logical that one would adapt to the weather, due to the nature of the climate.

At any rate, Lund's analysis of the Law of Moses in Mesoamerica addresses very few of the requirements the people would have needed to faithfully keep the law. He doesn't discuss the issue of ramps vs stairs, cut vs uncut stones, and many other aspects.

His assertions regarding Mesoamerica vs. North America do not  hold up to either the text or the facts of climate, geography, etc. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Peer Review of Brant Gardner trying to defend the Mesoamerican theory

In 2002, Earl Wunderli wrote a devastating analysis of Sorenson's Mesoamerican model of Book of Mormon geography. He incorporated a summary of his analysis in his 2014 book titled An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2013).

In the Interpreter, Volume 12 (2014), Brant A. Gardner wrote a review of Wunderli's book. Gardner's review has the cynical title "The Book with the Unintentionally Self-Referential Title." Unfortunately, such low-brow titles seem to be typical of many Mormon "apologetic" articles. Gardner's piece is available online here, but don't go to that link (at least, not yet) because Gardner avoids discussing Book of Mormon geography. On page 26, he explains why:

"Wunderli includes a critique of the Limited Geography Theory, which is the theory most often accepted among LDS scholars with training in anthropology or archaeology. [Here I'll inject that this appeal to authority is problematic on several grounds, not the least of which is the legacy of former LDS anthropologists and archaeologists whose faith was shaken by the complete lack of Book of Mormon evidence in Mesoamerica, even after 170 years of searching.] Wunderli greatly abbreviates arguments he made against that geographic setting for the Book of Mormon in an earlier article in Dialogue. I have responded to the points in that article and will not cover those points again."

Gardner uses a footnote to complain that "There is no indication in An Imperfect Book that Wunderli has seen that review."

Curious, I read Gardner's review. (Brant A. Gardner, "An Exploration in Critical Methodology: Critiquing a Critique," FARMS Review 16/2(2004): 173-223, available online here:

After reading Gardner's review and Wunderli's Dialogue article, available here, I don't blame Wunderli for ignoring Gardner. In my view, Gardner has left Wunderli's critique of the Mesoamerican theory unscathed. If anything, Gardner has demonstrated that the Mesoamerican theory is, ultimately, indefensible.

For those without a lot of time, the first 20 pages of Gardner's review don't respond to the substance of Wunderli's analysis of Sorenson's model. Instead, Gardner argues with himself about Wunderli's methodology, completely ignoring, misconstruing, and obscuring Wunderli's points. For example, he complains that "Wunderli assumes that 'choice above all other lands' must refer to North America rather than Oaxaca or southern Veracruz. There is no particular reason given why this must be so. It has certainly been a traditional reading, but the words of the text do not actually indicate a geography, only a qualitative description." p. 180-1.

The qualitative description is precisely what Wunderli is addressing in this section. Does anyone--anyone--think Oaxaca or southern Veracruz is "choice above all other lands?" Any reader is justified in taking judicial notice of well-known facts. People from around the world are not flooding to Oaxaca or southern Veracruz, and they never have. A quick google search shows that "both Veracruz and Oaxaca are notorious for high crime rates attributable to drug cartel activity and local government corruption." Oaxaca is the second-poorest state in Mexico. Residents survive on a limited diet and suffer from protein malnutrition that causes stunted growth and perpetuates poverty. Admittedly, these are modern qualitative descriptions, but the historical record is no more favorable. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is partly swamp and partly rainforest jungle, hot and malarial, with heavy rainfall. These "qualitative descriptions" support Wunderli's position; the burden is on Gardner to show otherwise.

Hemispheric vs limited geography

Gardner proceeds to criticize Wunderli:

"As he begins his discussion, Wunderli describes the hemispheric model and then gives a brief explanation of the limited geography model. His description of the limited geography model is fascinating because he elaborates on why it is a more powerful explanation of the text than the hemispheric model. Rather than present the hemispheric model as superior to the limited geography model, he does the exact opposite and suggests that the text really does not fit the hemispheric model." p. 189.

Of course, Wunderli has problems with both the hemispheric model and the Sorenson model (Gardner often conflates Sorenson's model with the "limited geography" model, seemingly oblivious to the other limited geography models that have been proposed). There is nothing inconsistent about Wunderli's approach. Criticizing Sorenson's model doesn't require him to embrace the hemispheric model. Gardner concocts a false dilemma, as if one of these two options must be correct. He complains that, with respect to the problem of Moroni hauling the plates to New York, Wunderli's hemispheric model is even more improbable than Sorenson's model: "in the hemispheric model the problem is worse because the narrow neck is usually considered to be the Isthmus of Panama, which is further south than the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (the narrow neck in Sorenson’s model). Both models have the same 'problem,' but the hemispheric model actually has a greater distance to travel in the same amount of time." pp. 190-1.

Since I agree with Wunderli that neither of these models fit the Book of Mormon text, perhaps my own bias makes it difficult to understand Gardner's logic, but how does the existence of a greater problem (hemispheric model) solve this still-significant problem of the Mesoamerican model?

Throughout, Gardner seems to assume that readers cannot bring their own experience and knowledge to the discussion. For example, regarding distances, he writes: "Wunderli never contradicts Sorenson’s method nor the specific calculations derived from it. What he does is argue by insinuation against rather than by direct confrontation of Sorenson’s data: 'Sorenson uses this distance and other clues to calculate, with increasing speculation, how far it was between other places such as Zarahemla' (p. 173, emphasis added). Wunderli does not provide any counterdata." p. 192. However, any reader knows people can travel distances at different rates (especially if different modes of transportation are at play) and Sorenson's calculations are, as Wunderli notes, compound assumptions not required by the text.

Gardner then writes "Wunderli undermines his own position because he specifically states: "Sorenson's calculations are not unreasonable." But what Wunderli actually wrote was, "Sorenson's calculations are not unreasonable, but they do not at all preclude a hemispheric geography." Gardner tries to find fault with this by claiming that under the hemispheric model, "those 450 miles would have to stretch to over 4,000 miles." Gardner insists that 4,000 miles is precluded, despite admitting such a distance is historically attested.


Gardner quibbles with Wunderli's take on Columbus, asserting that Columbus never set foot on North America but ignoring both that Columbus never set foot on Guatemala or southern Mexico and that Columbus did set foot on U.S. territory. Then Gardner characterizes Cortes as "scattering" the Lamanites, although the indigenous Mayans still live where they always have--unlike the North American Indians who were removed (scattered) from their ancestral lands. Gardner even makes the astonishing statement that "the Book of Mormon text describes events in Central America with far greater accuracy than it does North America." Gardner provides zero data to contradict Wunderli's persuasive analysis of history.

Gardner then doubles down on his insistence that the "promised land" is the crime-ridden, impoverished area of Central America as he discusses the meaning of "land" in Jarom, Omni and Mosiah:

"In this early definition, is it even conceivable that 'the land' might include North America? We have two candidates for a narrow neck, Panama and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Both are rather significantly south of the bulk of North America. The Nephites are in 'the land,' but they have never been north of the narrow neck, hence have never been into the area we conceptualize as North America....According to Wunderli’s argument, the Nephite land of promise—the land choice above all other lands—must perforce be a location they have never visited. " p. 203-4.

In an extensive footnote (p. 205-6), Gardner challenges Wunderli's observation that 2 Ne 1:8-11 "surely sounds like North American history from a Euro-American perspective, in which the Lamanites (Indians) lived by themselves but because of their unbelief, other nations came and took the land and 'scattered' and 'smote' them." But rather than deal with Wunderli's point about how the future Gentiles would scatter and smite the Lamanites, Gardner's footnote focuses on Richard Bushman's observations about the non-democratic form of government in the Book of Mormon, a topic Wunderli doesn't address. Then Gardner offers extensive irrelevant quotations from Jarom through Alma that don't address the prophecy in 2 Nephi.

By limiting the possibilities to two Central American locations, a requirement the text never imposes, Gardner artificially excludes North America as the Nephite land of promise and then cites his own contrived constraint to reject Wunderli's argument. His argument on history ignores Wunderli's points to the extent that one wonders if Gardner is critiquing a different article.

Narrow Neck of Land

Regarding the narrow neck of land, Gardner criticizes Wunderli in these words: "It never occurs to Wunderli that the area described in the [Sorenson] limited geography theory is also 'nearly surrounded by water... In the area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec [real people] could tell that they were 'nearly surrounded by water' by climbing mountains near the narrow neck and visually scanning the horizon."

Actually, it never occurs to Gardner that a "real person" standing on the "mountains" near the "narrow neck" that is 120 miles wide will see both land and water to the horizon--with the land widening the farther one can see. Not only is the Isthmus not actually "nearly surrounded by water," it doesn't even appear to an observer on the ground to be "nearly surrounded by water." There are no "mountains" in the Isthmus tall enough to see both oceans anyway, even on a clear day. The only point in the world where you can see both oceans is in Costa Rica, from Mount Izaru which is 11,325 feet. At that location, the two oceans are only 90 miles apart. But even from that spot, you would see the land continue to the horizon, northwest and southeast.

Worse, Wunderli does specifically address this point. "What is puzzling is why Sorenson believes southern Guatemala and southern Mexico meet these requirements at all. Both have the Pacific Ocean on one side; southern Mexico has the Gulf of Mexico (more specifically, the Gulf of Campeche) on the other side, and southern Guatemala the Caribbean Sea, although it is not clear that Sorenson extends the land of Nephi in southern Guatemala all the way to the sea. In any case, neither individually nor together are they "nearly surrounded by water."54 Note 54 reads, "Sorenson himself describes his Book of Mormon geography in 'Mesoamerican Record,' 396 (emphasis added), as
just a few hundred miles in length and width, bounded on two sides by oceans.' In his summary of criteria in A Source Book, 329, he recognizes that the land southward must be 'nearly surrounded by water' without explaining how his Mesoamerican location meets this criterion."

Wunderli's persuasive points about the "narrow neck" are otherwise unaddressed by Gardner, which I take as a concession that Wunderli is correct.


Next Gardner takes up the issue of directions. He states Wunderli's criticism accurately:

"Wunderli’s final criticism has to do with directions. He argues that, since the limited geography model interprets north differently from true north, it is therefore a distortion of the text. Wunderli suggests that north is true north and that the text therefore precludes Sorenson’s model because it violates that constraint from the text." p. 214.

Here's how Gardner criticizes Wunderli:

"One of his textual 'proofs' is that 'the Jaredites and the Nephites seemed to have had the same directional system' (p. 191). This is also a truism and hardly an issue for discussion. Unfortunately, Wunderli fails to distinguish the essential difference between a consistent system and one that requires that north have only the meaning he ascribes to the word. When John E. Clark (who is both a well-respected archaeologist and a Latter-day Saint) examined the geography of the Book of Mormon, he noted..." pp. 215-6.

Before getting to Clark, let's look at what Gardner is saying. First, he ignores the point that the Jaredites used the same system, which is a critical point because Gardner embraces the Sorenson concept that "north" in the Book of Mormon means "west" because of a combination of Mayan, Egyptian, and other cultural artifacts. But none of those apply to the Jaredites. Then Gardner characterizes the common meaning of the word "north" as one that Wunderli "ascribes to the word," as though every English speaker in the world doesn't also "ascribe" the common meaning to the word. Finally, he offers an embarrassing appeal to authority: Clark is both a "well-respected archaeologist" and a "Latter-day Saint." Neither characteristic has any relevance to the validity of the argument.

Now, look at Clark's point as quoted by Gardner: "I do not pretend to know how Nephite 'north' relates to the north of today’s compass, and such information is irrelevant for my present purpose of reconstructing an internal geography." Mesoamerican apologists like to characterize the common meaning of 'north' in terms of the compass, on the assumption that the Nephites (and Jaredites) did not have a compass, but this is a red herring; in reality, most cultures (including the Hebrews) take their directions from the rising sun. Even today, few people use a compass every day to figure out where "north" is; people know because of where the sun rises and sets. Gardner himself notes that to Mayan people, "the primary axis is an east-west direction based on the sun's daily path." Gardner insists that "Wunderli is locked into the modern Western mind-set," when in fact human cultures throughout time and space have used the sun as the axis for determining directions. Gardner, Sorenson, Clark, et al. try to avoid this reality by citing obscure variable directional systems, none of which are even hinted at in the Book of Mormon text.

Basically, the Mesoamerican proponents insist that Joseph Smith mistranslated the Book of Mormon. Here's how Gardner puts it: "We have evidence that Joseph dictated 'north.' What we do not have evidence of is what the text on the plates said." p. 218. So Joseph Smith's translation is not evidence of what the plates said!

It is difficult to conceive of an argument that undermines the Book of Mormon more than this one. Not even Wunderli goes that far. If Joseph's translation of "north" is not evidence of what the plates said, is anything he translated evidence of what the plates said?

Other have noted this fundamental problem with Mesoamerica, as Gardner admits: "The issue of cardinal directions in Sorenson’s model is important, but it has become a popular criticism largely on the basis of a Western inability to conceive of the world differently. We expect that 'north' must mean precisely what we think it means. When this notion is combined with the equally erroneous idea that the text of the Book of Mormon is a perfect rendition of the underlying text, it is easy to understand how even someone with Deanne Matheny’s background might suggest: 'Making this shift in directions creates its own set of problems, however, because in such a Nephite directional system the sun would come up in the south and set in the north.'⁴⁷" Footnote 47 reads: Matheny, "Does the Shoe Fit?" 277.

Gardner's response to both Wunderli and Matheny reflects his skepticism about the accuracy of Joseph's translation: "Although the English text of the Book of Mormon subconsciously encourages us to read our own cultural perceptions into directional terms, the text’s internal consistency tells us that the directional system works. If we allow the hypothesis that the text is a translation of an ancient document, then the modern assumption of directions is the problem, not the presentation in the Book of Mormon."

"Our own cultural perceptions" is a euphemism for "ordinary meaning of the English language." Gardner's approach here typifies the approach taken by Mesoamerican advocates generally, who postulate that the Book of Mormon "horse" is actually a "tapir," etc.

Gardner declines to address Wunderli's point about Nephi's use of modern cardinal directions while the family was still in the Middle-East. No wonder: that point alone demolishes all the strands of the "variable" directional system that Gardner teases out of obscure cultural references. The frequent use of directional references in the Book of Mormon by different cultures on different continents emphasize that directions are fundamental for any culture, especially for people who traversed the planet anciently. The hypothesis that Joseph Smith incorrectly--or worse, misleadingly--translated Book of Mormon directions exists solely to fit the Book of Mormon into a location the text itself rejects.


Gardner quotes Wunderli's conclusion: "Critics of the Book of Mormon have challenged the limited geography model on various grounds, but so far as I know, no one has challenged it based just on what the Book of Mormon itself says. And, in fact, what the book says seems to have been largely disregarded or misconstrued by the limited geography theorists."

In response, Gardner cites the "significantly larger number of texts" analyzed by Sorenson, but he never directly addresses Wunderli's text-based objections: "And in fact, on the basis of what the Book of Mormon itself says together with a map of the western hemisphere, Sorensen's Isthmus of Tehuantepec theory fares poorly. It is hardly a "neck" at all; it is hardly "narrow"; it does not connect a land northward with a land southward "nearly surrounded by water"; there does not appear to be a separate "narrow pass" through the "narrow neck" to make it narrow enough to defend; and it is oriented askew. Panama, on the other hand, satisfies the criteria of the Book of Mormon perfectly."

In my view, Wunderli's analysis is far more faithful to the text. While Gardner complains of Wunderli's "imposition of a reading on the text," Gardner's response is so convoluted that he insists that Joseph's translation is not even evidence of what was on the plates! In other words, Gardner dismisses Wunderli for analyzing the text because he, Gardner, knows what was on the plates themselves--knowledge Joseph Smith himself lacked.

Wunderli was right to ignore Gardner's critique. As of this moment, I'm not aware of anyone else who has responded to Wunderli's analysis of the Book of Mormon text, which is why he retained it for his book.

At any rate, as a believer in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, I conclude that Wunderli's observations are thoughtful, persuasive, and unchallenged. Neither the hemispheric nor the Sorenson limited geography (or any Mesoamerican geography) is consistent with the text of the Book of Mormon. If Gardner's ineffective response is the best defense of the Mesoamerican theory, then anyone who still adheres to the Mesoamerican theory out to reconsider.