Today we'll discuss John Sorenson's Sourcebook (The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book, which I discussed years ago here) and related topics.
M2C, on its own, is not an irrational approach--if you accept the premises. John Sorenson is an exemplary scholar who acknowledges his own biases. Had his colleagues and followers heeded his advice and counsel, the M2C citation cartel would never have formed in the first place, and it would disband immediately.
Book of Mormon Central, the Interpreter, FairLatterdaySaints, and the rest of the M2C citation cartel have not only ignored Sorenson's advice, they have expressly rejected it.
I dedicated my book Moroni's America to four people I know personally (some more than others). I have great respect and admiration for all of them: John Sorenson, John (Jack) Welch, Wayne May, and Rod Meldrum. These four, in my opinion, are currently the most influential people regarding Book of Mormon historicity/geography, for reasons I'll discuss in the next couple of posts. Everyone who loves the Book of Mormon should know something about each of them and their work.
I'm continually amazed that Jack Welch, in particular, persists in rejecting Sorenson's wise 6-step process to achieve a consensus, or at least unity. Jack could single-handedly put an end to the ongoing confusion and division about this topic, but he refuses to do so.
We'll discuss that in upcoming posts.
First, though, let's consider why this issue is important.
Recently I did a fireside on Church history. (I never discuss Book of Mormon geography when I do firesides, for obvious reasons, but most Latter-day Saints, once they are fully informed, reach their own conclusions.)
Several full-time missionaries attended. As always, the missionaries had never heard of most of what I explained about Church history regarding Joseph Smith's early years and the hill Cumorah. After my presentation, the Q&A lasted for nearly two more hours. Apparently the missionaries have access to the Joseph Smith Papers on their phones. One asked how to find Letter VII, so I explained you can just write "Letter VII" in the search bar and go right to it.
Another missionary made the point that a spiritual testimony is more important than any external evidence, and I agreed. I pointed out, however, that no one gains a spiritual testimony if they don't read the book, and most people, right after meeting the missionaries, get on the Internet and find the CES Letter or other critical sites. The missionaries nodded in agreement.
Not addressing the external evidence is tantamount to conceding the critical claims, which means people won't read the book in the first place.
Perhaps worse than the CES Letter are sites such as FairLatterdaySaints, Book of Mormon Central, the Interpreter, etc., because these "faithful" sites agree with CES Letter that the prophets were wrong about the New York Cumorah. M2C believers acknowledge (discreetly) that they disagree with the prophets and apostles who have taught the New York Cumorah. They take this approach:
“If I disagree with the Prophets, then they must not be speaking for the Lord, because surely, the Lord would never disagree with me!”
As I wrote at the outset, M2C, on its own, is not an irrational approach--if you accept the premises. John Sorenson is an exemplary scholar who acknowledges his own biases. Had his followers heeded his advice and counsel, the M2C citation cartel would never have formed in the first place, and it would disband immediately.
"There remain Latter-day Saints who insist that the final destruction of the Nephites took place in New York, but any such idea is manifestly absurd. Hundreds of thousands of Nephites traipsing across the Mississippi Valley to New York, pursued (why?) by hundred of thousands of Lamanites, is a scenario worthy only of a witless sci-fi movie, not of history."
Mormon's Codex, p. 688.
Strong opinions are fine once an author acknowledges the underlying assumptions (bias) at work. The New York Cumorah may be "manifestly absurd" when viewed from the perspective of a believer in the Mesoamerican setting, but the Mesoamerican setting itself may be equally "manifestly absurd" when viewed from the perspective of a believer in the New York Cumorah.
According to Terryl Givens, who shares the M2C bias, Mormon's Codex is "the high-water mark of scholarship on the Book of Mormon." Foreword, Mormon's Codex, p. xvi. I've discussed before how Mormon's Codex is illusory scholarship, here and here, but that doesn't detract from Brother Sorenson's important contributions.
It's possible to find "good information" in the M2C material, despite the presence of "bad information" there.
In his Sourcebook, Brother Sorenson reviews the history of Book of Mormon geography models, summarizes those models, lists geography-related passages from the text, and includes statements from Church leaders. He discusses the remaining problems, suggests ways to proceed, sets out his criteria for an acceptable model, and provides a "report card" to evaluate models. I've annotated much of the Sourcebook here:
Most of the Sourcebook is useful material--except the parts tainted by Sorenson's strong M2C bias that he sometimes acknowledges but other times takes for granted.
For this post, though, we will focus on some of Sorenson's useful observations (blue) with my comments (red).
The subject of "Book of Mormon geography" has stimulated three different responses among Latter-day Saints over the years. On the part of Church authorities caution, if not anxiety, has prevailed.
A persistent theme of Brother Sorenson's and the rest of the M2C believers is the disingenuous claim that Church leaders have been cautious about all of Book of Mormon geography. In reality, there has always been a bright line distinction between (i) the New York Cumorah and (ii) the rest of the geography.
The New York Cumorah was established during Moroni's first visit to Joseph Smith in 1823 and has been reaffirmed by every contemporary and successor of Joseph Smith who has ever addressed the topic. At the same time, these same people have expressed a variety of opinions about non-Cumorah locations.
For a minority of members the reaction has been persistent curiosity. Meanwhile a large majority have been satisfied to ignore the matter.
This is a questionable assertion, both historically and in the present. Historically, because the New York Cumorah was a given, most Latter-day Saints ignored ancillary issues. It was enough to know that a direct connection existed between the modern world (New York) and the world of the Book of Mormon. Certainly some Latter-day Saints were more curious than others about the rest of the geography, but everyone accepted the New York Cumorah, in no small part because Letter VII was ubiquitous during Joseph's lifetime and those with personal experience continued to testify about it.
In recent years, though, certain LDS intellectuals have cast doubt on the New York Cumorah. Consequently, Book of Mormon historicity has become a major impediment to conversion, retention, and activation.
The leaders' position probably stems from mixed concerns all classed under the heading of the threat of change:
(1) fear of embarrassment to the Church from premature, non-revelatory settling of popular opinion on one solution to the question that might later have to be changed;
Other than Cumorah, there have been no prophetic identifications to cause embarrassment, so refraining from such identifications is wise. Regarding Cumorah, though, not defending and corroborating the teachings of the prophets is more problematic because it raises doubt about other teachings of the prophets. Worse, scholarly rejecting of the New York Cumorah directly undermines the credibility and reliability of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, their contemporaries and successors.
(2) fear of divisiveness among members over competing correlations;
Now that Cumorah has been de facto de-correlated, tremendous confusion has arisen. A healthy approach that would avoid divisiveness starts with stating the facts and acknowledging multiple working hypotheses. Latter-day Saints making informed decisions can agree to disagree. It's when some are less informed than others, yet adamant about their opinions, that divisiveness arises.
(3) the challenge to traditional views about geography that is posed by scholarly study which might shake the faith of lay members who have not distinguished mere tradition from revelation; and,
This is clever reframing of the prophets vs scholars problem, but careful analysis shows the prophets have consistently recognized and articulated the difference between (i) the New York Cumorah and (ii) everything else.
(4) generalized mistrust of intellectuals and hobbyists in religious matters.
There is no cause for mistrust of intellectuals who seek to corroborate the teachings of the prophets. The mistrust arises when intellectuals seek to undermine or contradict the teachings of the prophets. Gospel hobbies can be distracting and counterproductive, but the study of the Book of Mormon is hardly a hobby.
But whatever the concerns of the leaders, a portion of the membership of the Church goes right on thinking their own thoughts about the geography of Book of Mormon events just as on many other subjects. Between these two unfocused interests or concerns, Mormon students of the scripture have produced a remarkably large body of writings that displays in its variety, if not its quality, the vigor of LDS thought.
This is a good insight about a practice that seems to be expanding currently.
The Resulting Problem and How to Proceed
Parts 1 and 2 have shown that 160 years of ad hoc modeling or interpretation of the geography of Book of Mormon events have failed to settle much about the question of where were the lands in which Book of Mormon events took place. My reading of the models leaves me discouraged even while granting that some things of enduring value have been distilled through this haphazard historical process.
Sorenson's 160 years (as of 1990) are now 191 years and counting. The 31 years since Sorenson published his Sourcebook have seen the rise of
(i) the intransigent and insular M2C citation cartel and
(ii) the only significant innovation in assessing the geography; i.e., the development of the Heartland model that starts with the New York Cumorah and combines textual interpretation with extrinsic evidence (archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, etc.).
If we are serious about answering the question-and I at least am-what should we do that is different?
One thing that we should do that is different is accept the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah. This seems to have never occurred to Brother Sorenson (or Jack Welch and his followers and donors). In fact, when some of us do advocate accepting the teachings of the prophets, the M2C advocates accuse us of apostasy. That is directly contrary to Brother Sorenson's point.
Well, the question itself has two sides to it. Our goal has to be to construct an equation involving the two sides:
Nephite locations A, B, C, etc. = New World locations X, Y, Z, etc.
This equation is key. Once one set of variables is solved, the others can be derived.
Ironically, Brother Sorenson and the M2C citation cartel continue to refuse to accept the most obvious solution to the equation. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery gave us the solution when they taught that, in fact, the Nephite location of Cumorah in Mormon 6:6 is the New World location of the hill Cumorah in western New York.
Cumorah/Ramah = the hill in western New York
Once we understand that, the rest is relatively easy.
We cannot work on the whole equation without first attaining thorough definition of the variables on either side of the equal sign. Equipping ourselves with that thorough knowledge demands different capabilities on the one side and on the other. For the external world, we cannot substitute knowledge of scripture for knowledge of climate, topography, hydrography, etc.
Finding links between scripture and extrinsic evidence is one of Sorenson's most important contributions. Unfortunately, he stopped looking for links once he thought he found his answer in Mesoamerica.
Unavoidably, we must have a profound grasp of the elements of the physical and cultural scene in its own terms-without any reference to the scripture. Most people offering models show that they have limited knowledge of that world.
It's difficult to say who has what knowledge, apart from what they've written. Here, Sorenson simply assumes that others lacked the extensive knowledge he claimed to have regarding Mesoamerica.
On the other side, we must know all there is to know about the statements in the Book of Mormon on the matters at hand without any reference to external geography, archaeology, or history.
This is Sorenson's argument for an "internal map," which of course is an illusion. Every word in the text is subject to interpretation, and every interpretation is informed and influenced by ideas about geography, archaeology, and history.
Everything done so far in studying the geography of Book of Mormon events has been inadequate by reason of incompleteness, if not of real errors. All the models reviewed in Part 2 have been partial and many are pitifully naive.
That's a subjective assessment, of course, but probably reasonably true. But naive in what sense? Naive because they ignore the teachings of the prophets? Naive because they don't spell out the extrinsic evidence or the passages from the text, or all of the above?
On the textual side, examination reveals that every single model has failed to deal successfully with certain geographical data in the scripture. As for the external world, most of the models again have failed to provide convincing evidence that the model maker understands such things as actual rates of travel over several types of ancient American terrain, or medical, ecological, and economic factors involved in population growth and stasis. We have all simply not been careful enough, by far.
"Actual rates of travel" is a deceptive phrase because it is based on subjective assumptions regarding travel by land vs. water, on animals vs. walking, etc. Even population estimates are subjective.
So at this time there is no way convincingly to argue where the equal sign in the equation should be placed. That will continue so long as we are ignorant about either or both sides of the equation.
We are only "ignorant" about both sides of the equation because we reject the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah. The New York Cumorah should inform both sides of the equation. Cumorah is the key that unlocks the door to understanding.
Of course it is truism that studies of an ancient text should begin with the text itself. Yet most studies in fact neither begin nor end so.
This demonstrates Sorenson's self-awareness and insight.
For example, the Bible text. Works on this record typically begin with assumptions about the Bible (as well as about documents in general, the nature of humans, the cosmos, etc.). The text then becomes a source of fragments which are considered in the light of the initial assumptions, usually employed to justify the assumptions. Was there ever a study which began assuming that the Old Testament text was composed by combining two, or three, or four ancient sources (traditions or manuscripts) which did not at the end conclude that indeed there were two, or three, or four such elements?
This type of outcome-driven analysis is easy to see in biblical studies, but the M2C citation cartel is blind to the same outcome-driven analysis that they reinforce with their "peer-approval" system that substitutes for peer review.
Or, where is a Christian evangelical exegeite who has failed to identify and support his own brand of theology through his writings about the Bible?
Many purport to "let the text speak for itself," but that is nonsense. For practically all of us, our anxiety to hear what we want to hear almost invariably overwhelms the other voice(s) the text conceivably may be directing toward our ears.
This is one of the take-aways from the Sourcebook. Every student of the Book of Mormon should internalize this self-awareness. It is easiest to do when, as I have, we change our minds in response to new evidence. As a former long-term M2C believer, it's obvious looking back that Sorenson's observation, if heeded, would have avoided years of wasted effort and belief.
My own book cites Book of Mormon verses over 960 times. But even so many citations does not mean that the text is "speaking for itself." For who can doubt that I chose those verses and the interpretations I provided for them while omitting others.
The M2C citation cartel has completely overlooked this crucial point. The CES and BYU fantasy maps overlook this point.
Other people too have chosen their verses and their interpretations. We cannot get far if mere opinion determines which set of verses we rely on, whether it is 1000 or 10.
I assume everyone agrees with this.
We need instead to use the entire scripture, without exception. Selectivity should be avoided like the plague. We must understand, interpret and deal successfully with every statement in the text, not just what is convenient or interesting to us. That can only be done, I believe, by doing our level best to approach the words of the Book of Mormon having to do with geography without preconceptions.
This ideal is unrealistic and probably unattainable. Our very language is based on preconceptions about what words mean. It's understanding the preconceptions, not pretending we can use language without preconceptions, that matters.
I admit that my own (1955) model was tainted by preconceptions. So has everybody else's been. If we are to progress in this task, we must chop away and burn the conceptual underbrush that has afflicted the effort in the past.
This is another essential point. The M2C citation cartel does the opposite of this. Instead of chopping away and burning the conceptual underbrush, they nourished it and built a wall around it to protect it from new ideas (and hide it from outsiders). Their followers, employees, and donors aggressively defend the underbrush against
We must stop asking, as so many do, what have the Brethren said about this in the past? It is clear enough (see Appendix A) that none of them knew the answer (which is what some of them have said often enough).
This is the core of M2C. Naturally, and by definition, an M2C advocate must ignore and reject what the Brethren have said about Cumorah.
The disappointing aspect of what Sorenson writes here is the disingenuous way he frames the issue. The Brethren have been consistent about two things: (i) Cumorah is in New York, and (ii) we don't know where other events took place.
Sorenson conflates the two points. His followers have continued that practice.
Even in his list of statements by Church leaders, Sorenson pressed his thumb on the scale by (i) omitting important statements that contradict his M2C thesis, (ii) editing statements to dilute their relevance and meaning, and (iii) inserting editorial comments to cause confusion and uncertainty.
For a scholar of Sorenson's experience and knowledge, especially with his evident self-awareness of his own bias, his work in this area is nothing short of deplorable. His Sourcebook is thoroughly tainted as a result, as he failed to heed his own advice while purporting to provide objective sources and insisting others do likewise.
And equally we must stop asking, what civilization known to the archaeologists must the Nephites have participated in? This is completely irrelevant at the present stage of study.
Anyone who reads Sorenson's work can see immediately that he did not live up to this standard.
Where we must begin is with the words of Mormon and his associates who kept the original records. From their words we must derive every scrap of meaning; I assume that their knowledge of geography was so integral and holistic that meanings are tucked into their records at a level below intention. We must sift for these.
Sorenson's call for "sifting" betrays his own aspiration for objectivity. The only viable approach is to set out the words and the offer a variety of possible interpretation, or multiple working hypotheses. Any "sifting" will necessarily be subjective and thereby confine analysis to a pre-determined arena.
We cannot omit any of them, for crucial clues may occur in or between words or lines where we had not seen them before.
It is inconsistent to say we cannot omit any of the words in the text but we must "sift" for the meanings of the words. Sifting results in omitting possibilities.
To summarize, the. following steps are necessary, and no other set of steps nor any other order for accomplishing them can solve our problem:
1. Purge our minds as far as possible of preconceptions about where the Book of Mormon lands were.
This is where Jack Welch and the rest of the M2C citation cartel run off the rails. They can't even accept the first step!
Notice, too, that this is another argument for rejecting the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah. There is no principled reason to reject what Joseph and Oliver said--except if we don't like what they said. To "purge our minds" of the teachings of the prophets is an invitation to chaos--which is exactly what Sorenson and the M2C citation cartel have generated.
2. Analyze as freshly and completely as possible every geographical fact and sound inference which the texts require or make likely.
Here, Sorenson reiterates his "sifting" approach with subjective terms such as "sound inference" "require" and "make likely." Those terms, applied broadly, are useful, but because Sorenson and the M2C citation cartel applies the terms narrowly to confirm their biases, this second step has been transformed into a litmus test for conformity to M2C.
3. Realizing that in fact we cannot completely rid ourselves of preconceptions or make inferences without some factual or logical errors, we should guard against hidden biases or errors by displaying for examination by other students as much of our mental processing as we are able. This requires writing out our work in detail; only written communication permits the careful examination by others that such work demands. (The resulting volume of writing may seem tedious to those not sufficiently motivated to the task.)
This is another idealistic step that Sorenson and his followers violate. The M2C citation cartel, by refusing to allow peer review outside the M2C citation cartel itself, cannot guard against hidden biases. The M2C bias is implicit in everything they produce. Book of Mormon Central is probably the worst offender because of the millions of dollars it spends to promote M2C, but it is just one of the storefronts in the Potemkin village of M2C.
4. Mutual criticism (again ideally in writing) is essential to reveal points where different students can agree or where they need to improve their thinking or information. This criticism need not be uncharitable, although truth must be the ultimate standard.
The M2C citation cartel has a long-established record of illusory criticism. Participants may disagree about which river in Mesoamerica is the Sidon, but they steadfastly refuse to allow criticism of M2C itself. They employ people to suppress criticism on the Internet. They refuse to allow comparisons of M2C and Heartland ideas that would give useful information to Latter-day Saints and others interested in the Book of Mormon.
5. By this repetitive process all should move toward consensus.
This "repetitive process," as implemented by Sorenson and his followers, has moved toward consensus. But only among those who are uninformed about all the historical evidence and the alternative interpretations of the text and the extrinsic evidence. This is the "Council of Springville," analogous to the "Council of Nicea" that produced the Nicean Creed by consensus.
However, the end result may be a conclusion that the text does not provide enough information, as read at this time, to come to full consensus on a single-text based model. That can only be learned by trying.
This end result remains possible, even likely, because no two people interpret the words and phrases exactly the same way (unless conditioned or required to do so).
6. So far as a single model emerges from this effort, then one-half-the prerequisite half-of the equation has been prepared. Only after this has happened can a definitive search for external correlations be carried out.
This argument for an "internal model" is so patently subjective that it is almost difficult to imagine that someone as intelligent as Brother Sorenson would seriously argue for it. But it suits M2C because of the way Sorenson and his followers interpret the "narrow neck of land," the "small neck," and the "narrow neck" to be the same thing. They also claim the "land northward" and the "land southward" are proper nouns, not relative terms.
In a word, this process of developing an "internal map" is a farce.
Until then anything said about external geography, archaeology, linguistics or the like for any location in America can only be prejudicial to the suspension of opinion-that we ought to maintain.
An actual "suspension of opinion" would be welcome, but that should include a "suspension of opinion" about the viability, let alone the feasibility, of a focus on developing an "internal map."
An alternative approach would start with the prophetic teaching about the New York Cumorah, and then interpret the text accordingly, in conjunction with extrinsic evidence.
But because the M2C citation cartel rejects Sorenson's own advice about openness to new ideas and suspension of opinion, the cartel will never move beyond the circular reasoning and logical and factual fallacies that produced M2C in the first place.
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