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, February 23, 2018

Cumorah - 8b, M2C in the Ensign

The genealogy of ideas gives us unexpected insights into current thinking.

Few Church members realize the Ensign itself published the foundations for  M2C (the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory). This brought M2C into the mainstream and gave cover for M2C intellectuals to openly defy the prophets and apostles. It helps explain why BYU/CES and other Church employees are so deeply invested in M2C, and why they refuse to look at the evidence that supports the teachings of the prophets and apostles regarding the New York Cumorah.

We need to start by taking another look at John L. Sorenson's book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, because of his useful observations about evidence and framing the M2C argument. The book was originally published in 1985, which is ancient history for today's students and young LDS who were born long after 1985. It might as well be 1885 for them. And yet, this book, along with David Palmer's In Search of Cumorah, laid the foundation for everything the M2C intellectuals and their followers believe.

Including today's teenagers and 20-something BYU/CES students.

I again emphasize that I have great respect for Brother Sorenson; I acknowledged him in Moroni's America as a major--and positive--contributor to the study of the Book of Mormon. Although I disagree with his premises and arguments in many respects, his practical, real-world approach to understanding the text has been highly influential on me and thousands of other Latter-day Saints.

The Preface to the book gives some background that I think most readers will be interested in. Quoted material in blue, my comments in red, as usual.


The knowledge in this book would have waited longer to appear and would have taken another form without the urging and assistance of particular people. By 1974 I had worked on the relation of the Book of Mormon to Mesoamerican geography and cultural data for twenty-five years but had been reluctant to impose my views on the public or my colleagues. Anyone who dedicates 25 years on a specific theory has a heavy investment in that theory. By the time the book was published, Brother Sorenson had invested another 10 years on this project. To infer that Brother Sorenson has a bias in favor of M2C is an understatement. That said, he is undoubtedly sincere when he says he was reluctant to impose his views on others. That is a characteristic of his that I observed in my few interactions with him, and it's one reason why I like and respect him. I don't think Brother Sorenson ever intended to have the extent of influence he has had. 

David A. Palmer urged me at that point to prepare a paper exploring and documenting my position; he offered to circulate it privately for comment to a selected group, along with a paper taking a different position. Brother Palmer, of course, wrote the book In Search of Cumorah that I have addressed in part before. Here we see again that Brother Sorenson was not pushing his ideas on others. 

Palmer and others became convinced from the interchange of comments that my material should be better known, so he prevailed upon staff members from several LDS Church offices to listen. In the fall of 1975 we met one afternoon each week, and I presented in some detail a version of what is in this book. This is quite significant. I've been explaining for some time how it is staff members at Church headquarters who are pushing M2C through media, curriculum, visitors centers, etc. Here we see how that process works: regular staff meetings with the intellectuals. Today, the situation is both remarkably the same and remarkably different. 

Church staff employees still meet regularly with intellectuals who promote the M2C agenda. However, there appears to be zero interest on the part of Church staff in learning about, let alone meeting with, members of the Church who still support what the prophets and apostles have said about the New York Cumorah and its ramifications. The tide began shifting around 1975. 

Ironically, it was the 1975 October General Conference when President Marion G. Romney delivered his strikingly specific address about the New York Cumorah, reaffirming what President Cowdery taught in Letter VII. Three years later, Elder Mark E. Petersen reiterated the New York Cumorah in the 1978 October General Conference. So far as I can tell, the topic has not been addressed since, at least not in General Conference. We could say that, given the consistency and specifics of the teaching about the New York Cumorah from 1835 through 1978, there is no need to keep repeating it.

Another view would be that the fascination of Church staff regarding Brother Sorenson's work has spread throughout the Church, as the rest of the Preface suggests.

Jay Todd, managing editor of the Ensign, who was a participant in those sessions, then invited me to prepare a series of articles for the Church magazine. 

Here's another indication of the sea change in approach. The Ensign is the first major official Church publication to have never published Letter VII. Apart from General Conference reports, I don't know of any Ensign articles that inform the Saints about what the prophets and apostles have taught about the New York Cumorah. To the contrary, the Ensign has repeatedly portrayed the Book of Mormon as having taken place in Mesoamerica. To the extent the Church has a neutrality policy on Book of Mormon geography, the Ensign has not followed that policy.

He and his staff (especially Lavina Fielding Anderson and Lane Johnson) worked at length to improve what I produced. Without editor Todd's continued faith in the importance of our project, I would not have persisted. Again, Brother Sorenson expresses his admirable reticence to publicize his views. 

Ensign, Sept 1984
Ensign, Oct 1984

Not until 1983 did our attempts to phrase the material in terms acceptable for publication in the Ensign come to an unsuccessful [sic] end. 

I don't know if this is a typo, but Brother Sorenson's articles appeared in the September and October 1984 Ensigns

Click on those links or the images of the covers to see the articles on lds.org.

Let's digress a moment from Brother Sorenson's book to see how the Ensign articles brought M2C into the mainstream.

The September article featured this map of Mesoamerica.

Map in September 1984 Ensign
Notice how closely the current BYU Studies map (below) resembles Brother Sorenson's Ensign map. It's not a coincidence.

The September 1984 article made this claim:

Map on current BYU Studies home page
A substantive discussion of geography cannot be given in these limited pages. However, for at least the past forty years, many students of the subject who have studied it in depth have reached similar basic conclusions: (1) the events reported by Nephite and Jaredite scribes evidently covered only a limited territory in the New World “land of promise,” and (2) there is presently known only one location in the Western Hemisphere that seems qualify as that scene.

These are very important points.

That's for sure; these are very, very important points.

They drive the entire M2C narrative.

If we break it down, the statement emphasizes the length of study (40 years), the expertise (studied it in depth), and the supposed consensus of the experts (reached similar basic conclusions).

These are all classic elements of confirmation bias. They are designed to persuade readers to agree with the consensus; i.e., you readers who have different ideas have not studied this topic for 40 years, and if you have you haven't studied it "in depth," and if so, you haven't reached "the same basic conclusions as the experts" so you're still wrong.

Anyone who has had an exchange with an M2C proponent knows how that goes.

The second point, though, is even more important. This is the claim that only Mesoamerica "qualifies" as the scene of the Book of Mormon.

By now, readers of this blog and my books know that this claim is pure confirmation bias based on circular reasoning. The process works like this.

1. M2C scholars originally thought they were vindicating what they thought Joseph Smith taught about Central America in the anonymous 1842 Times and Seasons articles. Everyone knows those articles were ridiculous; they described ruins that post-dated the Book of Mormon and sites that couldn't possibly work (such as Quirigua). But it is the very absurdity of the articles that makes them so popular with the M2C intellectuals. In their minds, the anonymous articles proved that Joseph Smith (i) was an ignorant speculator who changed his views over time and who, therefore, (ii) expected secular scholarship to eventually figure out Book of Mormon geography. IOW, this false narrative about Joseph's authorship exalted the scholars over the prophets--exactly where the scholars wanted to be, and where they are today.

This narrative is the reason why today's BYU/CES educators have no problem repudiating the prophets about the New York Cumorah.

2. With the assumed blessing of Joseph Smith, the M2C scholars established an imaginary set of criteria that described Central America--specifically, Mesoamerica. Thus, the premise assumes the result that all these years of training and study and analysis purport to seek.

3. Ever since, as this Ensign article demonstrates, the M2C scholars have used these imaginary criteria to exclude any setting that's not Mesoamerica.

Circular reasoning appears logically valid because the conclusion always follows the premise. The fallacy arises because the premise is designed to support the conclusion. IOW, the conclusion is used as the premise. With M2C, the premise (the "criteria") are first established to fit Mesoamerica. Then the criteria are used to show that the "only plausible location" for the Book of Mormon is Mesoamerica.

It's a transparent farce, but it works because of confirmation bias, combined with the complicity of the followers of the M2C intellectuals, who are just as eager to reject the prophets as are the M2C intellectuals themselves.

The article continues:

On the basis of my own research, I conclude with others that only one area qualifies in all respects—Mesoamerica.... So, focusing on data primarily from the Mesoamerican area, let us now look at the Book of Mormon alongside the best information available on civilization and geography there.

Brother Sorenson adds his personal conviction to the case he established by citing his colleagues, all of whom agree with him. While this Ensign article may not have been the first work of the citation cartel, it was definitely an influential one. Among others, Brother Sorenson cites David Palmer--the same Brother Palmer who encouraged Brother Sorenson to publish his work in the first place..

Knowing that Brother Sorenson had spent 35 years working on the connections between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon, it is not surprising he would reach his conclusion. But it is at least somewhat surprising that the Ensign would endorse his views to the point of excluding alternative views--an editorial approach that persists to this day.

Nowhere does the article quote or allude to the prophets and apostles who have spoken about the New York Cumorah. It does address the point obliquely, however:

Of course, placing the Book of Mormon lands within a limited region like Mesoamerica requires that we take a fresh look at some of the long-standing questions that have been of interest to Book of Mormon readers. 

Taking a "fresh look" is a euphemism for ignoring--and repudiating--the prophets and apostles who have specifically identified the "New York hill" as the literal Cumorah of Mormon 6:6. The prophets have warned that rejecting their words will lead to confusion and doubt. But look at this next sentence, which raises doubts specifically because it rejects the words of the prophets.

For example, how did the plates of Nephi get from the final battlefield near the “narrow neck of land”11 to where Joseph Smith obtained them in New York? Here the Book of Mormon sheds no light. 

Here we have the development of M2C, right in the pages of the Ensign.

Contrary to the claim in the Ensign, the Book of Mormon sheds plenty of light; Mormon said the battles took place at the hill Cumorah, a place in the midst of "many waters," which describes western New York perfectly. Plus, Moroni told Joseph Smith that the hill where the plates were was named Cumorah. That should settle it, but in addition, Joseph and Oliver together visited the depository of Nephite records in the same hill Cumorah in New York. Oliver specifically invoked Mormon 6:6 in Letter VII.

But the M2C intellectuals don't care. They'd rather figure this out on their own, using their own experience and expertise, because they exalt scholarship over prophets, as they always have. And once we repudiate the prophets, we're on our own. Hence, we have such speculation as the next sentences:

One obvious possibility is that Moroni himself may have carried the records to New York during his thirty-six years of wandering between the extermination of the Nephites and when he last wrote on the plates. (See Morm. 6:6; Moro. 1:1–4; Moro. 10:1.) Or he may have taken them there as a resurrected being. We only know that, whatever the means, in 1827 the plates were in the “hill of considerable size” near young Joseph Smith’s home at Palmyra, New York, where Moroni delivered the sacred record to him.

Do you see how this Ensign article established what has now become "the consensus view" that the prophets and apostles were all wrong, leaving us to speculate and guess how the events Mormon, Moroni and Joseph Smith described could have possibly taken place?

For those of us who still believe the prophets and apostles, these questions are foolish. The prophets have already given us the answers. But to M2C intellectuals who have convinced themselves the prophets and apostles are wrong, these questions persist. Their repudiation of the prophets erodes the faith of the people. These foolish questions deter investigators. And they cause the youth to question the prophets and apostles about other topics as well.

Let's look at footnote 11 from the paragraph above.

11. Consider the following reasoning: (1) The Cumorah of the Nephites and the Ramah of the Jaredites were the same hill (Ether 15:11). (2) This area, covered with bones (Omni 1:22; Mosiah 8:8; Mosiah 21:26–27; etc.) and also a “land of many waters, rivers, and fountains” (Morm. 6:4; Ether 15:8), was in the land of Desolation, which bordered on the land Bountiful at the narrow neck of land (Alma 22:29–32). (3) In Mormon 3 through 6, it becomes clear that the final battles of the Nephites were localized, centering largely in the general area of the city of Desolation, which was in the land of Desolation “by the narrow pass which led into the land southward” (Morm. 3:5, 7). (4) And therefore, according to this reasoning, Cumorah, the final battlefield of the Nephites and Lamanites, was near the narrow neck of land.

This footnote demonstrates another circular argument. A basic premise of M2C dogma is that the "narrow neck of land" is the same as the "narrow neck," the "small neck," the "narrow pass," and the "narrow passage." That's how you get a claim that Alma 22 refers to the "narrow neck of land." You can look it up. The phrase does not appear in those verses, but every M2C scholar you speak to believes it does. (I usually ask if they are using the Sorenson translation. They all are, but they don't realize it until I point it out.) In the actual text of the Book of Mormon, the "narrow neck of land" appears exactly once (in Ether 10:20).

The M2C intellectuals conflate these terms because they need an hourglass shape to support their belief that only Mesoamerica "qualifies" as a "plausible" setting for the Book of Mormon.

BYU's fantasy map
with mandatory M2C
hourglass shape
After much experience with M2C intellectuals and their followers, I've observed that they are so deeply brainwashed that they can't even imagine a scenario in which Mormon used different terms for different geographic features. 

Try it yourself. Ask one of them. You'll soon discover that they all conflate these terms, because that's the only way to derive an hourglass shape.

BTW, that's also why you see the hourglass in the fantasy maps BYU/CES are inflicting on their students.

In case you're wondering how Mesoamerica fits when the narrow section of the Mesoamerican hourglass is an east/west orientation as opposed to the BYU/CES fantasy map's north/south orientation, Brother Sorenson explains that the Nephites didn't really understand cardinal directions. When they wrote "north" they really meant "90 degrees from the coastline" because they supposedly landed on a south facing coast of Guatemala, making west the same as north. If that sounds crazy, don't worry. They have an elaborate justification for it.

Except some of the M2C intellectuals disagree, of course. That's what the conclave in Springville (home of Book of Mormon Central) is supposed to sort out.

By repudiating the prophets, the M2C intellectuals have made a complete hash of Book of Mormon geography, as the confusion over how Moroni got the plates to New York all the way from Mesoamerica exemplifies.

Enough of the Ensign articles. Read them yourself and count how many logical fallacies you can find. And notice how cleverly the teachings of the prophets and apostles are ignored and repudiated.

Let's turn back to the Preface.

By then about 1,500 photocopies of the manuscript of an earlier version of the book had been circulating to people who had heard about it from friends. It was one of these photocopies that I worked on, as I've discussed before. I think I still have it in my papers somewhere. I was fully enthralled with M2C at this point. It seemed clear that publication as a book would meet a widespread need. I'm intrigued by the term "need" here. Demand, maybe, just because people always want something new. But maybe need is the correct term, after all. Throughout history, people have always sought a reason to reject the prophets. Among Latter-day Saints, rejecting the prophets was traditionally frowned upon, to say the least. But M2C has opened the door to making it optional for members of the Church to accept the prophets and apostles. I call it the gateway drug. Now, according to our BYU/CES faculty, any time the prophets and apostles disagree with what the intellectuals teach, you don't have to believe the prophets and apostles.

This, really, is the biggest problem with M2C. It's not only about geography. It's about the credibility and reliability of the prophets and apostles in general.  

The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS] determined in 1983 to publish the book. John Welch and Kirk Magleby have been strong supporters of that decision and have helped substantially with arrangements. 

Here I need to point out that now, in 2018, Brothers Welch and Magleby are still the ringleaders of M2C. This means 35 years of promoting M2C just since they decided to publish Brother Sorenson's book. 

I really like them personally and I respect them for the awesome work they've done on so many aspects of Book of Mormon research. But, in my view, they have caused tremendous damage by their adamant promotion of M2C.

Brother Welch is the Editor-in-Chief of BYU Studies. He is also Chairman and Co-Founder of Book of Mormon Central (BOMC). Brother Magleby is the Executive Director of BOMC. Both BYU Studies and BOMC strongly promote M2C and exclude alternative ideas. Both repudiate the teachings of the prophets and apostles about the New York Cumorah, relying on the same circular reasoning that Brother Sorenson outlined in the Ensign articles.  

Actually, everyone at BOMC takes this approach. Some of them are also responsible for the BYU fantasy map. You can see the participants here: https://bookofmormoncentral.org/directory

I have gone through all of this analysis to show how carefully the groundwork has been laid. The M2C proponents have worked diligently and patiently for decades to get to the point where M2C is at the tipping point of completely repudiating the prophets and apostles. 

It is no longer just a handful of M2C intellectuals who are promoting these ideas. The M2C intellectuals have educated thousands of Latter-day Saints throughout the Church. They have suppressed knowledge about Letter VII, its context, and its long-lasting corroboration by prophets and apostles.

At this point, I know of only a few BYU/CES/Church headquarters staff who still believe the prophets and apostles. And they are reluctant to speak out.

But to guard against the dangers of confirmation bias, we need to consider the possibility that maybe the M2C intellectuals are right.

Maybe the scholars really should be exalted above the prophets and apostles...

Okay, I've considered that.

Actually, I followed that course for decades. I read FARMS publications, attended seminars, visited Mesoamerican sites, etc. I fully accepted M2C. But finally, when I learned what the prophets have actually taught, I came to my senses and saw through the logical fallacies that M2C is built upon.

I think M2C is a foolish course to follow, both individually and institutionally.

So, no thanks. I'm sticking with what the prophets and apostles have taught. I'd do that even if the evidence wasn't so overwhelmingly in favor of the New York Cumorah.

Finally, the last part of the Preface.

Others are thanked for laying a basis for Deseret Book Company's enthusiastic participation as joint publisher with F.A.R.M.S.

Deseret Book is another topic for another day, but you can look through their publications and see they are purely M2C. To their credit, they do carry some non-M2C materials in their stores, at least.
Of course, the views expressed are strictly my own and do not claim to represent those of Brigham Young University, where I work, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, or Deseret Book Company.

This is true of everyone who writes on his/her own, of course, but I'm less concerned about whether Brother Sorenson represents the views of those organizations than I am about whether his views have influenced those organizations. Fortunately, FARMS is no longer. But it has resurfaced with a vengeance as the equally dogmatic M2C promoter called Book of Mormon Central. Except this time it claims the false facade of "neutrality" that far too many people have been taken in by. I've shown before that their real mission is "to increase understanding of the Book of Mormon as an ancient Mesoamerican codex," and they're not about to stop that any time soon.

All royalties from sales of the book go to the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies to continue scriptural research.

This noble statement deserves more comment than I have time for right now.

Maybe another time we'll look at the Introduction to Brother Sorenson's book.


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