Cumorah: A Decision Tree for Book of Mormon Geography
People often ask for a summary of Book of Mormon geography issues. This post includes a decision tree to help people make their own decisions.
My premise: Everyone who reads the Book of Mormon wonders where it took place.
Moroni knew how important location was.
During his first visit to Joseph Smith, Moroni "gave a history of the aborigines of this country, and said they were literal descendants of Abraham... He said this history was written and deposited not far from that place," meaning Joseph's home near Palmyra, New York.
Today, people take three basic approaches to the geography question:
1. Some people don't care about the geography;
2. Some people think it's important to know the geography and culture to understand the text (as we do with the Bible); and
3. Some people won't believe or even read the book unless they have a plausible reason, supported by evidence, to first believe it's an authentic history that took place in a real-world location.
Judging by the outcome of over 180 years of publishing the Book of Mormon to the world--over 150 million physical copies, plus millions of electronic versions--by far most people in the world fit into category #3.
Aware of this, the early missionaries cited evidence. When confronted with the anti-Mormon claim that the Book of Mormon was fiction, Joseph and Oliver Cowdery wrote and published Letter VII, stating it was a fact that Cumorah was a real place. It was the very hill in New York where Joseph obtained the plates, where Mormon deposited the Nephite records, and where the Jaredites and Nephites had their final battles.
All the Church publications re-printed Letter VII to reaffirm the message that Cumorah was in New York.
The Church has no official position on the setting. It is up to each member, individually, to decide, based on the scriptures, the teachings of the prophets, and the available evidence. No one is obligated to believe what someone else believes or teaches, regardless of how much education a particular proponent has.
The question really boils down to this:
Do you think the Hill Cumorah is in New York or somewhere else?
The historical record is clear: Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith, and all of their contemporaries believed and taught that the Hill Cumorah was in New York. In addition, all of the prophets and apostles who have spoken on this issue agreed, including members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference as recently as the 1970s. No prophet or apostle has said Cumorah was anywhere else.
Those who believe the Hill Cumorah (Mormon 6:6) is in New York think the rest of the geography flows from that point in the map.
Those who believe the Hill Cumorah (Mormon 6:6) is somewhere else think (i) the New York "Cumorah" is a false tradition and (ii) the location of Cumorah can only be determined by reference to the location of other Book of Mormon settings (Mesoamerica, Baja, Panama, Chile, etc.) The most widely accepted non-New York Cumorah is somewhere in Southern Mexico. This is the Mesoamerican theory promoted by intellectuals affiliated with BYU, CES, etc. It is the theory displayed in most Church artwork, media, visitors centers, etc., although there are some depictions of the New York Cumorah, such as Arnold Friberg's painting.
To decide whether you agree with Central America or North America, you can check the box next to the proposition and then compare your responses to those of the Central and North American proponents. 1-17 are statements of historical fact; 18-20 are conclusions.
1. When Moroni first visited Joseph Smith, he said the record was “written and deposited” not far from Joseph’s home.
2. Joseph Smith obtained the original set of plates from a stone box Moroni constructed out of stone and cement in the Hill Cumorah in New York.
3. Mormon said he buried all the Nephite records in the Hill Cumorah (Morm. 6:6), which was the scene of the final battles of the Nephites, except for the plates he gave to his son Moroni to finish the record.
4. Orson Pratt explained that Moroni deposited the plates in “a department of the hill separate from the great, sacred depository of the numerous volumes hid up by his father.”
5. Brigham Young said Oliver told him that he (Oliver) and Joseph had made at least two visits to a room in the Hill Cumorah in New York that contained piles of records and ancient Nephite artifacts.
6. Heber C. Kimball talked about Father Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and others seeing records upon records piled upon tables in the hill Cumorah.
7. When Joseph and Oliver finished translating the original set of plates in Harmony, PA, Joseph gave the plates to a divine messenger who took them to Cumorah.
8. In Fayette, NY, Joseph and Oliver translated the plates of Nephi.
9. Oliver Cowdery was the Assistant President of the Church and spokesman when he wrote that it was a fact that the valley west of the Hill Cumorah in New York was the location of the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites, as well as the site of Mormon's depository of Nephite records (Letter VII).
10. Joseph Smith had his scribes copy Oliver’s letters, including Letter VII, into his journal as part of his history.
11. Joseph Smith gave express permission to Benjamin Winchester to republish Oliver’s letters, including Letter VII, in his 1841 newspaper called the Gospel Reflector.
12. Joseph Smith gave Don Carlos Oliver’s letters, including Letter VII, to republish in the Church newspaper called the Times and Seasons (T&S) in 1840-41.
13. Letter VII was republished in the Millennial Star and in an 1844 pamphlet in England. It was republished by Joseph's brother William in New York City just two days after Joseph's martyrdom in The Prophet. It was republished in Utah in the Improvement Era, then edited by Joseph F. Smith.
14. D&C 128:20 reads, “And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets—the book to be revealed,” followed by references to other events that took place in New York.
15. To date, apart from Moroni’s stone box and the plates and other objects Joseph Smith possessed and showed to the Witnesses, no artifact or archaeological site that can be specifically linked to the Book of Mormon has been found anywhere, but there are archaeological sites that match the vague descriptions given in the text throughout the Americas.
16. Every LDS who was alive during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and several prophets and apostles since, accepted the New York hill Cumorah as the scene of the final battles, including in General Conference addresses. No General Conference address has ever claimed Cumorah was anywhere but in New York.
17. As an Apostle and Church Historian, Joseph Fielding Smith said the two-Cumorah theory caused members to become confused and disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon. He reiterated this when he was President of the Quorum of the Twelve in the 1950s in his book Doctrines of Salvation.
18. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were merely speculating about the location of Cumorah. They were wrong and they misled the Church by referring to the New York setting as a fact.
19. Joseph Fielding Smith was wrong when he criticized the two-Cumorahs theory and maintained that Cumorah is in New York.
20. President Anthony Ivins, President Marion G. Romney, and Elder Mark E. Peterson were all wrong when they spoke in General Conference about Cumorah being in New York.
If you agree with 1-20 (or disagree with some of 1-17 but agree with 18-20), then you reject the New York Cumorah and either (i) accept a Mesoamerican setting (or another non-New York Cumorah setting) or (ii) don't believe the Book of Mormon is a literal history.
If you agree with 1-17 but disagree with 18-20, then you accept the New York Cumorah and therefore probably reject the settings outside North America.
Now you know where you stand, at least with respect to the New York Cumorah, and you can proceed accordingly.
[I posted a more detailed comparison table in August, 2016, here. This one includes areas in which the two sides agree to disagree. So far as I know, it remains the most detailed and complete statement of the respective positions of those who advocate a Central American (Mesoamerican) setting and a North American (Heartland/Moroni’s America) setting.]
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