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, May 7, 2021

Inertia and Book of Mormon historicity

Recently on this blog we discussed the importance of having an open mind and adapting to new developments, incorporating new ideas, etc.

President Nelson has told us as Latter-day Saints to become "engaged learners" instead of "lazy learners." 

A "lazy learner" is one who defers to others instead of making informed decisions. Their opinions and beliefs are assigned to them by others. By contrast, an "engaged learner" makes informed decisions by studying and evaluating the evidence "by study and by faith."

Given the topic of this blog, it's easy to see how anyone who accepts the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory (M2C) just because that is what they've been taught is a lazy learner. And that's fine, if they're satisfied with that. No one can study everything.

There are also engaged learners who accept M2C. They make informed decisions. One of those decisions is to reject the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah.* Again, that's fine. People can believe whatever they want.

In my experience, though, both interpersonal and in reviewing the materials produced by the M2C citation cartel, most believers in M2C not only don't know what the prophets have taught, but they don't know about the abundant extrinsic evidence that corroborates those teachings.

It's a fascinating issue because our ability, as Latter-day Saints, to be engaged learners instead of lazy learners has far-reaching implications.


Another way to look at the difference between "lazy learners" and "engaged learners" is something the physicist Richard Feynman said years ago.

The problem is not people being uneducated.

The problem is that people are educated just enough to believe what they have been taught, and not educated enough to question anything from what they have been taught.

Because of information overload in the modern world and the prevalence of fake news from all sides, most people simply accept whatever they're taught. We don't have enough time, energy, or expertise to question everything. We decide which news silo to accept and stick with it.

Plus, people can and will believe whatever they want anyway. Facts don't really matter much. 

Generally, people accept the religion they inherited from their parents. (click to enlarge)

We see similar regional affiliation in the states in the United States.

There is tremendous intellectual and emotional inertia that prevents people from accepting new ideas and beliefs. Otherwise, religious affiliation would be more evenly distributed around the world and throughout the United States.

The foundation of missionary work is the idea that people can and will change their minds when presented with new information. But as every missionary knows, such people are an exception to the rule. 

Missionaries seek people who have an open mind and are willing to listen to new information and a version of reality that differs from what they have known. 

As President Nelson put it, missionaries seek people who are engaged learners instead of lazy learners.


We should ask, how do we as Latter-day Saints apply the counsel to become engaged learners instead of lazy learners?

The Gospel is a seamless web of interconnected ideas, information, doctrine, history, and practice. Some things matter to some people more than other things, and each person is different. We prioritize among them according to our individual needs and interests.

Most Latter-day Saints accept the premise that the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion. Some accept the Book of Mormon entirely on faith, whether because they inherited that belief from their families or because they had a spiritual witness that convinced them. 

Of course, most people in most religions share similar convictions about their respective beliefs. They, too, inherited their beliefs and have had spiritual experiences that affirm their beliefs. 

People of all religious beliefs generally accept their beliefs. Some wonder why others don't have the same beliefs and spiritual experiences they do. Others question their beliefs and seek alternatives. People convert from and to a variety of beliefs for many different reasons.

Preach My Gospel explains that "The Book of Mormon, combined with the Spirit, is your most powerful resource in conversion.... the first question someone should answer is whether Joseph Smith was a prophet, and he or she can answer this question by reading and praying about the Book of Mormon." https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/preach-my-gospel-a-guide-to-missionary-service/what-is-the-role-of-the-book-of-mormon?lang=eng

Some Latter-day Saints accept the Book of Mormon because of the power of its teachings. Again, that's the same basis upon which people of all religions accept their respective religious texts; i.e., they recognize the power of the teachings of their texts.

The Book of Mormon differs from other religious texts, however, because it was written specifically to convince people that Jesus is the Christ. Its origin as an ancient record of a long-lost civilization distinguishes it from all other religious texts. Joseph Smith recognized this when he identified extrinsic evidence as "proof of its divine authenticity."


For the vast majority of the world's population, the Book of Mormon has not been convincing because asking them to trade one set of beliefs for another is a non-starter. SITH--the stone in the hat theory-- creates another impediment by reframing the Book of Mormon as a revelation instead of a translation, akin to other religious texts.  

Many Latter-day Saints whose faith is inherited and/or based on spiritual confirmations also confirm or corroborate their faith by historical events. They accept the Book of Mormon because Joseph Smith said he translated it from an ancient record. They accept the teachings of the prophets about its historicity. They engage in learning about the evidence that corroborates the teachings of the prophets.

These Latter-day Saints consider the work of the scholars, but they don't defer to the scholars without first considering the biases and agendas those scholars promote. 

That makes them engaged, instead of lazy, learners.


Right now, BYU and CES students are being taught an interpretation of the Book of Mormon based on the M2C interpretation. These conceptual maps groom students to accept M2C as the only plausible setting for the Book of Mormon.

Look at how BYU justifies its map. [https://bom.byu.edu/]

The Church and BYU stay neutral in questions of exactly where the Book of Mormon took place. [One glance at the BYU and CES maps shows they are anything but neutral. They incorporate, and functionally canonize, the M2C interpretations of the text, including the hourglass shape and the declaration that Cumorah cannot be in New York. The only reason they don't outright show Mesoamerica is because they've been told to remain "neutral," but these scholars all accept M2C.] The Lord could have removed all questions regarding the exact locations of these events but he did not. [The scholars blame the Lord for not revealing these locations, but they have rejected the New York Cumorah. Pursuant to the principle of Alma 12:9, we can hardly expect more light when we've rejected the light we once had.] For that reason, our design team has chosen to develop an internal map that shows relational directions and approximate distances that match the approximately 550 geography descriptions in the text as closely as possible. [This is the message: following the text "as closely as possible" means embracing the M2C interpretation. But the maps also depict the Book of Mormon in a fictional setting.]

Naturally, the LDS scholars who have constructed these maps claim they rely on the best scholarship. But that only makes the problem worse.

These conceptual maps (which I call fantasy maps) teach students that the Book of Mormon does not fit any real-world location. 

Consequently, fewer and fewer students coming out of CES and BYU believe the Book of Mormon is an authentic history.

As Patrick Mason pointed out in his recent fireside in Logan, Utah, according to The Next Mormons, only 50% of Millennials still believe the Book of Mormon is a literal, historical account. (click to enlarge)

The percentage of those who believe it's a literal history is declining over time. The trend is similar regarding other doctrines, but none of the other doctrines on this list involve external evidence. In fact, the other doctrines rely mainly on the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, as we saw from Preach My Gospel.


Everyone who reads the Book of Mormon wants to refer to a map. But what message are we sending to the world if the "best" maps our scholars can produce are fictional fantasy lands?

I've pointed out the futility of constructing an "internal geography" based on the text of the Book of Mormon. Without a starting point, the generic geographical references in the text leave us with nothing but assumptions and speculation. The references are so vague that we can confirm any bias we want.

In an upcoming post, we'll discuss the importance of a starting point.

For now, let's look at the example of the term "narrow neck of land" which appears only in Ether 10:20. The terms could refer to any number of features. Some people infer it's the same geographical feature as the "small neck of land" and the "narrow neck," but why assume that different terms refer to the identical feature? 

In Joseph Smith's day, Panama was often referred to as a "neck of land," which explains why the Pratt brothers taught the hemispheric model (North America was the "land northward" and South America was the "land southward"). When he wrote the Wentworth letter, Joseph Smith deleted Orson Pratt's hemispheric model, which never really made sense anyway. Few people noticed what Joseph did there and the hemispheric model persisted until it became untenable. Today, few Latter-day Saints believe Panama was the "narrow neck of land" of Ether 10:20, let alone the "small neck" or the "narrow neck."

Despite rejecting the Panama scenario, our M2C scholars still teach that these three terms must apply to the same isthmus between two large land masses. Hence, the hourglass shape in the BYU and CES maps.

While an isthmus is one possible meaning of the term "neck of land," other meanings also exist. As I pointed out in Between these HillsGeorge Washington, in a letter to Congress dated November 19, 1776, described his army’s precarious position between two rivers in New Jersey.

Yesterday morning a large body of the enemy landed between Dobbs’s ferry and Fort-Lee. Their object was, evidently, to enclose the whole of our troops and stores that lay between the North [now called the Hudson] and Hackinsac rivers, which form a very narrow neck of land

This "very narrow neck of land" between two rivers is not an isthmus. It ranges between 2 and 5 miles across. And yet, we have LDS scholars who still claim the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is a "narrow neck of land."

William Hubbard, who wrote A narrative of the troubles with the Indians in New-England, published in Boston in 1677, used the term “neck of land” to refer to several of the peninsulas in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

On Friday July 15. Our Forces Marched for, and araived at Rekoboth where having no intelligence of the Enemy nearer then a great Swamp on Pocasset, eighteen miles from Taunton; they marched next day twelve miles to an House at Matapoiset (a small Neck of Land in the bottome of Taunton Bay, in the mid-way between Mount-hope and Pocasset Neck) from whence they marched for Taunton.

Warwick, a town near Providence seated upon a neck of land, environed by the sea, was all of it burned by the enemy at several times.

These are just a few of many such examples of how these terms have been used. Yet our M2C scholars, including the purveyors of the CES and BYU maps, don't consider multiple working hypotheses for these terms. They still insist that these three terms all apply to the same isthmus between two large land masses.

It's astonishing, really. 

But lazy learners can be persuaded to believe anything.


Engaged learners will not be satisfied with what they're told. They want to explore these issues in depth by studying the scriptures, the teachings of the prophets, Church history, and related evidence.

Instead of seeking evidence to repudiate the teachings of the prophets, they seek evidence to corroborate the teachings of the prophets.


*M2C believers today frequently claim the living prophets (including apostles) no longer teach the New York Cumorah. I'm unaware of any living prophet who has taught anything about Cumorah, one way or another, let alone any who has repudiated the teachings of his predecessors about Cumorah. 

Given the success of the M2C citation cartel in using the academic cycle to impose M2C as the de facto consensus and the only acceptable interpretation of the text, by now it would be highly disruptive for Church leaders to reaffirm the teachings of their predecessors.  

Instead, the living prophets repeatedly encourage Church members to be "engaged learners" who study the scriptures, the teachings of the prophets, and authentic Church history. 

It's up to us, as intelligent, faithful, informed Latter-day Saints, to reach our own conclusions. Although some of the M2C scholars claim they've been hired by the prophets to guide us in these matters, Church leaders have always taught that it is our responsibility to seek the truth. We cannot delegate this responsibility to the credentialed class, no matter how much the intellectuals want and even expect us to.

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