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.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The February Ensign

I've been getting a lot of complaints about the February Ensign because of the Mesoamerican theory it perpetuates. Let me assure you I had nothing to do with it.


The issue is available online here.

There are two categories of complaints:

1. The Cover.

2. The Sorenson article.

I'll address them in reverse order, in good chiastic fashion.


2. The Sorenson article, available here. Those who have read this blog and my books know that I respect John Sorenson and his scholarship immensely. I just think he made a big mistake focusing on Central America because he fell for the anonymous Times and Seasons articles about Central America.

This article is an excellent example of my point. Brother Sorenson unwittingly helps to prove the North American setting while disproving the Mesoamerican setting.

First, I note that the Ensign article is adapted from a longer piece published by the Maxwell Institute in 2011, available online here.

Second, Brother Sorenson's original article is an excellent resource for those interested in how the text was compiled. The Ensign edited out most of the detail while retaining the major points.

Third, the article is refreshingly devoid of references to Brother Sorenson's Mesoamerican theory, except for the point that "the book had to be portable enough that Moroni could carry it to a safe location." This passage alludes to Brother Sorenson's claim that Moroni carried the plates from Central America to New York.

That gets to my main point. Brother Sorenson writes this:

This project began at the last location where the Nephites camped before they finally gathered to the land of Cumorah.... Mormon’s writing activity probably extended into the four-year period of preparation for the final battle agreed to by the Lamanite commander, but in any case the abridged history was completed and the archive was buried in the Hill Cumorah well before the final conflict (see Mormon 6:6).... Mormon had little more than three years to do all of the compiling and writing of over 600 years of history. He may not have had time even to read through all the archival records in his hands, and there surely would be no time for stylistic fine-tuning or reediting.

Of course, Brother Sorenson thinks all of this took place in Central America. Only later, in his view, did Moroni take the plates and other artifacts to New York.

I completely agree with Brother Sorenson that Mormon compiled the text during the preparations for the final battle, but Moroni told Joseph Smith exactly where this writing project took place.

He [Moroni] then proceeded and gave a general account of the promises made to the fathers, and also gave a history of the aborigines of this country, and said they were literal descendants of Abraham. He represented them as once being an enlightened and intelligent people, possessing a correct knowledge of the gospel, and the plan of restoration and redemption. He said this history was written and deposited not far from that place, and that it was our brother's privilege, if obedient to the commandments of the Lord, to obtain, and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record.

So Brother Sorenson points out that Mormon wrote the history during the preparations for the last battle, and Moroni tells Joseph Smith that the history was written and deposited not far from Joseph's home near Palmyra, New York.

Brother Sorenson is making the case for the New York Cumorah!


1.  The cover (and the illustration to Brother Sorenson's article) depict Mayan elements. However, as Brother Richard E. Turley, Jr., Assistant Church Historian, pointed out in the October 2015 Ensign, we shouldn't confuse artistic interpretation with historical fact or doctrine. "Over the years, artists have sought to portray the Book of Mormon translation, showing the participants in many settings and poses with different material objects. Each artistic interpretation is based upon its artist’s own views, research, and imagination, sometimes aided by input and direction from others. Here are a few scenes produced throughout the years."

The artist, Joseph Brickey, is fantastic. You can see his web page here:  He has some of the best religious art I've seen. (Those who have read The Rule of Equity will appreciate his depiction of the circle and square in the tree.) I highly recommend Brickey's art.

The cover came from this piece: http://www.josephbrickey.com/product91.html. Fortunately, it doesn't depict the anachronistic Mayan temples that we see in so much Church-sponsored art. The painting is ambiguous enough that it could represent a variety of settings. And, the text tells us Christ visited many people, not just those in Bountiful. The title of the painting is simply "Christ in America." I have no problem with that. Of course, the inference is that this painting depicts Christ visiting the Nephites, which is more problematic. He's standing at the top of stairs on what could be interpreted as a symbol of a sacrifice on an altar. Under the law of Moses, you can't have steps leading to an altar (Exodus 20:24-26). So this is not a Nephite setting. Again, it's not a problem if you understand it is not intended to depict Christ appearing to the Nephites, but most LDS, sadly, will probably think that's exactly what it's depicting.

The illustration accompanying Brother Sorenson's article is a little more problematic, although it is brilliantly painted. The printed Ensign only shows part of the painting; the online version shows the entire painting here.

I love artistic license as much as anyone, but this is supposed to be the Hill Cumorah, as you can see from the the bodies on the ground below Mormon (or Moroni), who stands on a precipice. Even 1,600 years ago, I don't think there were palm trees in New York. Nor was Lake Ontario that close to the Hill Cumorah. It's great that Mormon has a metal sword in his hilt--smelting was unknown in Mesoamerica but not in ancient North America--but some of the other elements are Mayan/Central American, which are completely out of place for the Hill Cumorah.

I realize most LDS won't pay attention to these details, but they reinforce the long tradition of Church art portraying Book of Mormon events in Central America. This type of art contravenes the official Church policy of neutrality on the question of geography.

I'm also sure some people will point to this artwork in the Ensign as evidence that the Church supports the Mesoamerican setting. Sadly, they have a point, but I think it's evidence of the persistence of a tradition based on a historical mistake, not evidence of a thoughtful consideration of the merits of the Mesoamerican theory.

For those upset by the artwork, I hope you appreciate it for the wonderful artistry and disregard it for any doctrinal implications.


Monday, January 18, 2016

2016 Gospel Doctrine course handout

This is cross-posted from http://www.2016gospeldoctrine.com/.

2016 Gospel Doctrine – 

Book of Mormon Study Guide supplements from 

Moroni’s America

When we read the scriptures, it is fun and useful to think about the people in a real-world context. Many people visit Israel and the surrounding areas because of the Bible. It is striking how the Old Testament setting is also the setting for much of the New Testament. Many people also visit Church history sites for the same reason.

But what about the Book of Mormon?

As we learn more about what Joseph and Oliver Cowdery said, and what the text itself says, we discover that when we visited Church history sites in New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri, we were also visiting Book of Mormon sites. We just didn’t know it.

Unlike the Bible, the Book of Mormon does not refer to places we recognize in modern times. Instead, we look to modern revelation, where there are scriptural references to the two most important places in the Book of Mormon: Cumorah and Zarahemla. The basic overview for Book of Mormon geography is right in the Doctrine and Covenants!

Zarahemla, because two cultures joined there: the Nephites and the Mulekites. The text refers to Zarahemla far more than to any other site. Where is it? See D&C 125:3.

- Cumorah, because both civilizations ended there: the Nephites and the Jaredites. Where is it? See D&C 128:20 and Oliver Cowdery’s Letter VII.

D&C 125 and 128 have been overlooked because overzealous missionaries in 1842, including Benjamin Winchester, thought it would be a good idea to shift the focus to the exotic ruins in Central America. For Joseph Smith, building the temple and preparing the Church for his death, while also avoiding imprisonment and a host of legal problems, dominated his thinking and energy. Besides, he had already told people the locations of Cumorah, the plains of the Nephites, Zelph, Manti, and the New Jerusalem.

Think of Zarahemla and Cumorah as pins in the map. Then you quickly get a picture of Book of Mormon geography.

The border between the Nephites and the Lamanites was the “narrow strip of wilderness” and both the land of Zarahemla  (Nephite territory) and the land of Nephi (Lamanite territory) were “nearly surrounded by water.” Alma 22. It says water, not ocean or sea. Therefore, the border between them had to be water, with a “small neck of land” between them.  Only a river can be both “water” and a “narrow strip of wilderness.” The rivers in North America (the Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, and Allegheny Rivers) are a perfect fit. And the small neck of land between them—where the river border ended—is not far from Cumorah, which helps explain why Cumorah was strategically important.

There are a lot of geographic details in the Book of Mormon, but with the aid of latter-day revelation and the statements of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, it becomes apparent where the Book of Mormon took place. There is a detailed analysis of the geography verses, in chronological order, inMoroni’s America. The Lost City of Zarahemla and Brought to Light explain the Church history aspects. And Letter VII: Oliver Cowdery’s Message to the World about the Hill Cumorah explains what he and Joseph knew about Moroni and Cumorah.

See more weekly lesson supplements at http://www.2016gospeldoctrine.com/.

2016 Gospel Doctrine course

In 2016, the Gospel Doctrine course of study is the Book of Mormon. Lesson supplements each week are being posted here: http://www.2016gospeldoctrine.com/

2016 will be a significant year in Book of Mormon studies as many Church members worldwide will learn about the North American setting for the first time.

Wherever I go, the most common feedback I get from LDS members is "North American just makes sense. Central America never really made sense." Percentage-wise, in my experience fewer than 10% of members stick with the Mesoamerican theory once they learn about just these items:

- Letter VII,

- Joseph Smith's statements about the plains of the Nephites and Zelph,

- Benjamin Winchester at the Times and Seasons,

- D&C 125,

- the explanation of how the text itself describes North America, and

-the archaeological, anthropological, geological, and geographic data that supports the North American* geography.

This is going to be an awesome year for the Book of Mormon as Church members around the world will hear much more about all of these items.

*for Dan Peterson and the rest of the Interpreter citation cartel, North America means north of the Rio Grande, not Central America or Mesoamerica.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

For Mesoamerican holdouts

I know there are a few Mesoamerican holdouts, who insist on believing the Book of Mormon took place somewhere in Central America. Some of them read this blog and email me with comments.

So I'm sharing this fun combination of Arnold Friberg and Star Wars, neither of which have anything to do with the text:

LDS S.M.I.L.E.'s photo.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Despite knowing...

Some years ago I was flying to the Middle East and had a conversation with a fellow passenger who, it turned out, was going on a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai.

"Are you going to the one in Egypt or the one in Saudi Arabia?" I asked, hoping to learn more about the Saudi location.

He looked puzzled. "What one in Saudi Arabia?"

"The one in the northwest, near the Gulf of Aqaba."

He had never heard of it. He was going to St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai peninsula, thinking it was Moses' Mount Sinai but unaware of the differences of opinion about the actual location. He seemed a little shaken to learn that he might not be headed for the actual Mount Sinai after all. I was sorry I'd asked the question and I hoped I didn't ruin his trip.

Anyone who has visited Israel knows there are plenty of, shall we say, "traditional" sites. They attract millions of pilgrims. Despite knowing these traditional sites have little to do with the events they commemorate, people enjoy visiting them. I've done so myself. These sites have historical significance of their own, actually, but we don't want to conflate that significance with the reality of the underlying historical events.

(As I mentioned on bookofmormonconsensus here, the Sinai controversy is a good example of the futility of creating an abstract map based on incomplete data from the scriptures. The issue is summarized pretty well by Wikipedia, here. More academic analysis is available here and here. A popular site is here.)

I was reminded of this by a recent blog post by a well-known Mesoamericanist who is visiting Central America. He's actually posting photos of Quirigua.

I know many people who have been on "Book of Mormon" tours to Central America. I've visited several of the proposed sites myself. It's always a good use of time to learn about other cultures, historical sites, etc. But why perpetuate the fantasy that the Book of Mormon took place in Central America?

Here's a quotation from the blog:

In particular, the mention of “a large stone brought … with engravings on it” (Omni 1:20) found at Zarahemla caught the attention of the Times and Seasons editor.
It is certainly a good thing for the excellency and veracity, of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, that the ruins of Zarahemla have been found where the Nephites left them: and that a large stone with engravings upon it, as Mosiah said.
Such “large stones,” or lakam-tuun (from Mayan, lit. large stone) are of course found throughout Mesoamerican ruins. However, the tallest are here, at Quiriguá.

The incongruity should be obvious. The reference in Omni refers to "a" large stone; i.e., it was unique and memorable, so unusual that it merits 10% of the highly condensed book of Omni (3/30 verses).

In North America, such a large engraved stone would be unique and memorable. By contrast, such large stones "are of course found throughout Mesoamerican ruins."

Had the Book of Mormon taken place in Mesoamerica, the stone brought to Mosiah would hardly be remarkable.

This is yet another example of:

1) how the text describes not Mesoamerican culture but North American culture;

2) how ridiculous the Times and Seasons articles are (the blogger admits, "Despite knowing it is not directly related to the Book of Mormon, it was fun seeing the ruins of Quiriguá and standing next to the largest known lakam-tuun in all of Mesoamerica. The role it played in early LDS thought—and very likely Joseph Smith’s own thinking about the Book of Mormon—makes it a significant site for Latter-day Saints and the intellectual history of Book of Mormon geography and archaeology.")

3) how people believe what they want to believe despite the evidence (in this case relying on the goofy black-box stylometry material as evidence that Joseph Smith wrote the Times and Seasons articles).

BTW, it's been over a year now and I'm still waiting for the data on the stylometry material, despite numerous requests. The authors have published their conclusions and presented it publicly to contradict the historical evidence, but they have refused to share their data, their software, or their assumptions. It's pure bias confirmation, in my opinion, which is why it persuades only those who want to believe it.