Sunday, September 25, 2016

A reason to question consensus

Today I noticed this quotation from another blog:

Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled.
  • Michael Crichton

Sunday, September 18, 2016

More stuff coming

I haven't posted for a while because I've been traveling and speaking, and I'll be gone for the next week as well. But a lot has been going on.

The Book of Mormon Evidence conference in Sandy was wonderful. We met lots of new people who are enthusiastic about what's going on with Church history and Book of Mormon historicity. Almost everywhere I travel now, people are talking about these things. More and more people are reading Letter VII and realizing that what they've been fed their entire lives about Book of Mormon geography (Mesomania) doesn't add up--or even make sense.

This weekend, my publisher released the Mesomania book. In the next couple of weeks, we'll release two more books: The Editors: Joseph, William and Don Carlos Smith, and Whatever Happened to the Golden Plates?

I've been doing some Church history research in Massachusetts and New York, as well as more Book of Mormon stuff. As I get time, I'll post about it here, whenever it is relevant to the consensus topic.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Helaman 3

This post is a chapter from an upcoming book that will be released on September 6, 2016.

The Book of Helaman tells us what happened in Nephite society in the years leading up to the first coming of the Lord.

It parallels events leading up to the second coming.

Chapter 3 describes a sequence of events that reflect what is happening in our day.

The chapter starts out with no contention among the people, except for a little pride in the church that caused some “little dissensions among the people, which affairs were settled in the ending of the forty and third year.”

We can compare that to the early days of the Church, when “some little dissensions” led people out of the Church. But the Church survived and thrived, for the most part, for over a hundred years. Not without challenges to overcome, but the progress of the Church was steady.

Then, verse 3 says in the forty and sixth year, “there was much contention and many dissensions.” People left the church and the land of Zarahemla; “there were an exceedingly great many who departed.”

Verse 17 says the people left “after there had been great contentions, and disturbances.”

I think we can relate this to Book of Mormon geography and historicity. Joseph Fielding Smith even invoked this terminology when he said the two-Cumorah theory caused members to become disturbed in their faith.

Notice the contention continued for a few years, but then they “began to cease” in the latter end of the forty and eighth year. In the forty and ninth year, there was continual peace.

Verse 24: “And it came to pass that in this same year there was exceedingly great prosperity in the church, insomuch that there were thousands who did join themselves unto the church and were baptized unto repentance.”

Now, look at what happened as a result of eliminating the contention:

25. “And so great was the prosperity of the church, and so many the blessings which were poured out upon the people, that even the high priests and the teachers were themselves astonished beyond measure.”

I think this is what will happen as members of the Church eliminate contention about Book of Mormon geography and reach unity on the basic teaching from Oliver and Joseph that the Hill Cumorah was in New York.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Maps and expectations

One of the most frequent questions I get (as well as points of disagreement) involves maps.

Everyone is trying to figure out Book of Mormon geography by reading the text and referring to satellite maps. As I pointed out in Moroni's America, this can be helpful in some ways, but there's no reason to think that Mormon and Moroni had satellite imagery. They lived on the ground. They didn't have airplanes, let alone satellites. It's a completely different perspective, one that modern people probably can't even understand because we're so used to viewing the Earth from the top down. We project maps onto the surface even when we try not to.

As a result, the reliance on modern maps raises expectations that cannot be met. (And I realize I used them in Moroni's America. Like everyone else, I want to relate to the text in terms of modern geography. But I don't think we can get an accurate geography using modern maps, at least not accurate in detail. The overall picture seems pretty clear to me, but when we get down to where someone crossed a river or where a particular battle took place, we're raising expectations that have no sound basis either in the text or in terms of modern geography.)

Another factor: neither Mormon nor Moroni personally visited every city mentioned in the text. Many of the cities were destroyed, as recorded in 3 Nephi, hundreds of years before Mormon and Moroni wrote their portions of the plates. Maybe they had maps to refer to, or maybe they only had written explanations that were not a lot more detailed than what they left in their own accounts. I think that's one reason why they used such vague terminology.

Yet another factor is that landforms change over time. Besides the destruction described in 3 Nephi, rivers frequently change course.

Here's an example of a map of the Mississippi River from 1682, drawn by Franquelin, a Frenchman. You'll notice it's not even close to what our satellites show.

Let's say an individual writing the history of this region had only this map to go by. No matter how well he/she described the terrain and the relative distances and directions, we would not recognize the setting in today's world.

There are some interesting features if you look closely.

Franquelin noted iron mines and lead mines along the river. He depicted the body of water at the top, which we call Lake Michigan today, as "Mer du Nord," or Sea North.

I'm not saying or implying that this is the Sea North referred to in Helaman 3:8, but I am pointing out two things here.

First, the term "Sea North" is not a proper noun but a relative term, which is how I think Mormon used similar terms in the Book of Mormon.

Second, this map was the most accurate representation Franquelin could come up with, based on the information he had. We now know that Lake Michigan does not extend this far west and that the rivers are much different from what he showed here, but that doesn't mean Franquelin was lying or trying to deceive anyone. We can assume he used his best efforts, despite the imperfections in this map.

It is difficult today to figure out which tributaries Franquelin was showing. The Mississippi River today looks almost nothing like what he showed in this map.

Two years later, Franquelin drew another map. This one shows the Mississippi entering the Gulf of Mexico from roughly where Corpus Christi, Texas, is today. The New Orleans area is shown as a bay, not the mouth of a river.

With respect to the Mississippi entering the Gulf of Mexico, Franquelin's earlier map was more accurate. But instead of the wildly speculative Sea North, he showed the Great Lakes much as we know them today. He even showed the northern extension of Lake Huron to what we now call the French River. This once-navigable extension used to be a passage to the St. Lawrence Seaway but is now marshland.

This map also identifies an interesting feature not far from the Hill Cumorah in New York. Franquelin labels it "Fontaine d'eau qui brule," meaning "Fountain of water that boils."

The point here is that I think we need to be careful in assessing the geography passages of the text and consider the circumstances in which someone writing around 400 A.D. would be in as he abridged the records that, to him, were already ancient. These maps from 1682 and 1684 are only 330 years old. Mormon was dealing with maps (or, even worse, verbal descriptions) that were older than that to him.

Moroni noted the text contained imperfections. He also wrote that "if there are faults they are the mistakes of men."

This is another reason why I propose we start with the known pin in the map--the Hill Cumorah in New York--and sort through the text from there.

And that's why I think any map that puts Cumorah somewhere else, whether in a real-world setting or in an abstract setting, is hopelessly compromised and inherently misleading.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Book of Mormon cement

One of the biggest obstacles to reaching consensus is interpreting the text through Mesoamerican lenses. Along with volcanoes, headwaters, and tapirs, the claim that Mayan cities are described in the text is inexplicable.

There are only three verses in the text that mention cement, all in Helaman:

Helaman 3:7-11
7 And there being but little timber upon the face of the land, nevertheless the people who went forth became exceedingly expert in the working of cement; therefore they did build houses of cement, in the which they did dwell.

9 And the people who were in the land northward did dwell in tents, and in houses of cement, and they did suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land that it should grow up, that in time they might have timber to build their houses, yea, their cities, and their temples, and their synagogues, and their sanctuaries, and all manner of their buildings.

10 And it came to pass as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, they did send forth much by the way of shipping.

11 And thus they did enable the people in the land northward that they might build many cities, both of wood and of cement.

There is not a single mention anywhere in the Book of Mormon of people constructing buildings with stones or rocks.

Even in these verses in Helaman, they built houses of cement. They needed timber, not stones, to build their "houses, yea, their cities, and their temples, and their synagogues, and their sanctuaries, and all manner of their buildings." Even if large stones were available, they explicitly did not use them. Instead, they imported lumber before they built their cities.

So if we read the text, we should be looking for a culture that built with wood (timber), along with cement, but not with stone.

The last thing we would look for is something such as this:

Oddly, this photo illustrates KnoWhy #174 at Book of Mormon Central. The title is "When Did Cement Become Common in Ancient America?" The photo shows anything but a culture that built with wood and cement.

The article proceeds to discuss archaeological finds involving cement in Teotihuacan in central Mexico, "which some Book of Mormon scholars consider to be in the land northward." Anyone who has visited Teotihuacan, as I have, knows these massive buildings were not made out of wood and cement, as the Book of Mormon says. They were constructed with stone and cement.

There is another mention of cement in connection with the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith described the box that contained the plates, which was originally constructed by Moroni:

"Having removed the earth, I obtained a lever, which I got fixed under the edge of the stone, and with a little exertion raised it up. I looked in, and there indeed did I behold the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate, as stated by the messenger. The box in which they lay was formed by laying stones together in some kind of cement. In the bottom of the box were laid two stones crossways of the box, and on these stones lay the plates and the other things with them."

Moroni knew how to fabricate and use cement when he was in New York (unless you want to believe he hauled cement 3,400 miles north from Mesoamerica along with the plates and other artifacts).

At Cahokia, across from St. Louis, archaeologists have reconstructed the wood and cement walls that were common anciently in that area. These particular walls date a few hundred years after Book of Mormon times, but they show the kind of construction the text describes: wood and cement.

The ancient people used the cement in these structures to fortify and protect the wood. This type of cement doesn't last a long time. It didn't survive even a thousand years, so it couldn't have survived from even earlier Book of Mormon times. For that matter, could we reasonably expect any of the Nephite wooden structures to survive to this day?

As always, I think it's more useful to read the text and then look for something in archaeology that matches instead of deciding on a setting and then changing the text to make it match.

Any culture that built with stone instead of with wood (and, for a short time in one location, cement) cannot be the culture described in the Book of Mormon.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Expectations and art - missionary work

Missionary work involves a variety of expectations, but here I'm focusing solely on the expectations raised by the missionary edition of the Book of Mormon.

Over the years, the official editions of the Book of Mormon have contained sets of illustrations. I have copies of many of these that I'll use to make this important point: The expectations of missionaries, investigators and members are set largely by these illustrations.

The illustrations that accompany the official edition of the Book of Mormon are tremendously influential. I suspect that far more people look at the illustrations than read the text. Probably 100 times more.

Obviously, the message in the text is ultimately the most important, but unless people read the text,they don't get the message. If the illustrations convey ideas that contradict the text (and Church history), then they cause confusion.

The fact that these illustrations have changed over the years shows that they can be changed again. At the end of this post, I have a suggestion along those lines.

The history of these illustrations reflects a shift from a hemispheric model (the one that Friberg apparently intended) to the limited geography two-Cumorah Mesoamerican model that modern scholars support. For example, notice that the earlier editions showed both Mormon and Moroni at the New York Cumorah, while the newer editions show only Moroni in New York.

I suggest it's time to shift back to a one-Cumorah model, based on New York.

I have a copy of a 1961 Book of Mormon that contains the following illustrations at the front of the book:

The caption: When Jesus Christ organized His Church, He called and ordained his disciples.

Caption: The Prophet Joseph Smith. He translated the ancient writings inscribed on gold plates from which the first edition of the Book of Mormon was published in 1830.

Caption: The Hill Cumorah, near Manchester, New York where Joseph Smith obtained the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.

Caption: The beautiful monument to the Book of Mormon Prophet Moroni was erected on the top of the Hill Cumorah in July, 1935.

Caption: Gold tablet found in Persia in 1961, dating to the time of Darius II (Fourth Century B.C.)...

Caption: Ancient copper and bronze tools dated from the Book of Mormon period.

Caption: Gold plates from Peru fastened together with gold rings. Ancient Americans were skilled craftsmen in gold and precious metals.
Caption: Textiles from Peru, dated from the Book of Mormon period.

Caption: Egyptian-like murals found on temple walls in Mexico.

Caption: Looking across the main plaza of Monte Alban (sacred mountain). This city dates back to 800 years before Christ.
Caption: Temple of the Cross in Mexico. This temple, believed to have been erected during the Maya Classic Period, contains the famous Cross of Palenque. Many archaeologists now agree that these artistic masterpieces date back to the beginning of the Christian era.

In addition to these illustrations, eight of the twelve Arnold Friberg paintings are interspersed in the text.

The exact same set of illustrations are in the 1980 English edition I'm looking at right now.

[Note: I also have a 1973 Spanish edition that contains the same illustrations except it substitutes Machu Picchu for Monte Alban. I suspect the reason is to show a hemispheric model that would appeal to people in South America.]


The 1981 English edition changed the illustrations to what we have now, both in print and on here. This is the edition that added the subtitle "Another Testament of Jesus Christ" to the cover.

If I'm an investigator, missionary, or member, here's what I take away from these illustrations. First, Christ is the most important (the first illustration) and the Heinrich Hoffman painting depicts the traditional Christ accepted by Christianity generally. Awesome.

Second, Joseph Smith. Makes sense.

Third, finding the Liahona in the Arabian desert. One of the best Friberg paintings, set in the right place, and emphasizing a key element of the text. Nice.

Fourth, arriving at the promised land. So long as I don't realize that Friberg intentionally used a bird species that exists only in Central America, and so long as I don't notice the high mountains in the background, the painting is ambiguous enough that Lehi could have landed almost anywhere in the Americas. Okay, but not great.

Fifth, the waters of Mormon in the depths of a thick jungle featuring high mountains. Hmm, now it's inescapable. I have to conclude that the Book of Mormon took place in Central America somewhere (or maybe somewhere in the Andes). Let's say, not good because it conveys a specific setting the text does not support. Worse, it endorses the scholars' two-Cumorah theory that rejects Letter VII and Oliver Cowdery, one of the Three Witnesses.

Sixth, Samuel the Lamanite on the Mayan walls of the city of Zarahemla. Now there's no doubt about it. As a reader, I have to believe the Book of Mormon took place in Central America. But when I read the text, I'll be seriously disappointed and confused to discover the text never mentions huge stone pyramids and temples. It never mentions jungles. And when the answer to my obvious questions about Cumorah is that there are actually two Cumorahs, I'll become even more confused.

Seventh, Jesus Christ visits the Americas by John Scott. This painting combines a variety of ancient American motifs to convey the idea (I think) that Christ visited people throughout the Americas. This is a reasonable inference from the text. (I like to think the clouds represent North America, but it would be far better to show something actually from North America, such as an earthwork, that is described in the text. Of course, the text never mentions pyramids, stone buildings, or even high mountains where the Nephites lived.) The biggest problem with including this illustration is the inference that Christ is visiting the Nephites in Central America. The painting is incorrectly labeled "Christ teaching Nephites" on, for example. If the webmaster at misunderstands the painting, surely investigators, missionaries, and members make the wrong inference as well.

Eighth, Moroni burying the plates. Awesome. Except the caption doesn't say where Moroni is burying them; it doesn't mention Cumorah or New York. The Introduction says Moroni "hid up the plates in the Hill Cumorah," so as a reader, I infer this painting is supposed to be the New York hill. But then how could all the other events take place somewhere in Central America? More confusion, especially when the explanation I'm given is the two-Cumorah theory.


My suggestion.

A member, missionary, or investigator who looks at the official edition of the Book of Mormon, online or in print, will naturally turn to these illustrations and take away the message that the Book of Mormon events occurred in Central America. There is really no other feasible conclusion to be drawn from the illustrations.

But the illustrations contradict the text itself in many ways.

The only certain connection we have between the Book of Mormon and the modern world is the Hill Cumorah. People who read the text should not be influenced by depictions of huge Mayan temples, massive stone walls, jungles, and the like. Artistic representations should rely on the text. Some of the Arnold Friberg paintings are set in places that conform to the text; i.e., Lehi in Arabia, brother of Jared on a high mountain, Mormon and Moroni on the New York Hill Cumorah. Others, however, have created expectations among members and nonmembers alike that simply cannot be reconciled with the text or satisfied in the real world.

The sooner they are replaced with text-based illustrations, the better.

Given the existing artwork, here's what I would like to see in the way of Book of Mormon illustrations:


I'd like to go back to the emphasis on the Hill Cumorah in New York, both because of its central role in the restoration, and because of its importance in the text. This spot, in New York, is where the Nephite and Jaredite civilizations came to an end.

I'd like to see a quotation from Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII here in the caption. After all, Oliver's testimony as one of the three witnesses is already in the introductory material. Maybe instead of the statue, we could have a photo of the valley to the west where the final battles took place.

Keep this illustration of Lehi and the liahona because it is consistent with the text; i.e., a Middle-Eastern setting.

Add this one back because it's an important story and shows the coast of the Arabian peninsula.

Add this one because it is important to show actual sheep from the text instead of the tapirs and agouti in Central America, although the tropical plants are still problematic.

Add this one back because of how important the story is and the setting, somewhere in Asia, doesn't matter.

Add this one back because it shows both Mormon and Moroni at the Hill Cumorah in New York. This is eliminates any confusion about Cumorah. It reaffirms what Oliver Cowdery wrote in Letter VII.
Keep this one because it shows Moroni burying the plates in New York in the stone and cement box he constructed, away from the repository of the Nephite records that his father Mormon concealed elsewhere in the hill.


Illustrations that are consistent with the text can help encourage people to read the text and engage with it. Illustrations that are inconsistent with the text--i.e., illustrations of jungles and massive stone pyramids--are confusing and off-putting. When people discover that illustrations in the official editions rely on the scholars' two-Cumorah theory, it's even worse. The scholarly theories that the Hill Cumorah is actually anywhere but in New York, and that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were speculating about all of this, are hardly conducive to faith.

If we could have a consistent narrative based on the New York setting for the Hill Cumorah, and eliminate the confusing images based on Central America, the message of the text would be free from distractions, which would enhance understanding and faith. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Expectations, imprinting, and life-long avocations

If you've been following these blogs, you undoubtedly know that most LDS people still have a vague notion that the Book of Mormon took place in Central America. They probably have never read BYU Studies, or books and articles published by Deseret Book, the Maxwell Institute, or the various organizations and web pages that promote the Mesoamerican theory.

So where does the notion come from?

It's definitely not in the text.

But it is in LDS culture.

Mesoamerican imagery is ubiquitous in Church media, creating expectations and imprinting interpretations that last a lifetime.

Think about the impact the media has. Do kids growing up with these images have any chance of imagining the Book of Mormon in North America?

Historical narratives are created by words and images, but images usually prevail over words. Images are easier to remember, especially when they are viewed many times.

The Mesoamerican narrative is so strongly imprinted that even considering a different setting feels somehow disloyal to what one has been taught from childhood.

All of this artwork defies the New York setting for the Hill Cumorah. Many people don't realize that because they haven't thought about it and they don't read what the LDS scholars write, but LDS scholars are adamant that the Hill Cumorah must be somewhere in southern Mexico.

Church authorities did not commission Arnold Friberg to illustrate the Book of Mormon. The work was privately funded and then donated to the Church. Apparently Church leaders at the time were reluctant to illustrate the text.

They probably knew that once a scene was depicted, it would become fixed in the minds of the people. And that is exactly what has happened.

I think the LDS scholars who continue to promote the Mesoamerican geography were deeply influenced at a young age and don't even realize it.

In the context of Book of Mormon geography, images have framed the interpretation of the text for generations.


Here's an example of how children are taught to think of Samuel the Lamanite, the city of Zarahemla, and what Nephites looked like. In this puzzle from the Friend, children are asked to study this painting in detail, using a form of catechism.

"How many Nephites can you count on the stairs?"
"How many vases are hanging in the shop?"
"How many arrows are near Samuel?"

Every Primary child is taught from an early age that the city of Zarahemla was built of massive stone structures featuring Mayan motifs. The text says nothing of the sort. There is not a single building made from stone in the entire Book of Mormon. And yet, this illustration launches children on a course of expectations that stays with them their entire lives.


The lessons from Primary are reinforced over the years. Here's a poster from the New Era that reiterates the message about the city of Zarahemla and the appearance of the Nephites.

This one is particularly ironic because the caption, with the title, reads:

Popularity. It's overrated. Sometimes the crowed is just plain wrong.

Truer words could not be written about the scholarly approach to the Book of Mormon geography.

Sunday School.

The Sunday School manual and student guide is explicitly Mayan.

Fortunately, the lessons don't focus on geography, but the when the only illustration in the manual depicts a Mayan scene, the message is clear and unmistakable.



Here is the cover for the Book of Mormon Seminary Teacher Manual. It's almost generic, but the massive stone pyramid in the background pays homage to the Friberg painting of the massive stone Mayan pyramid that is also featured in the logos of the scholarly organizations.


The Institute manual is also explicitly Mayan with the temple structure and the jungle vegetation. No ambiguity here.

When Church-approved material depicts a consistent Mayan setting for the Book of Mormon from Primary through adulthood classes, what other conclusion can members reach?

Popular media

Because official publications feature Mayan themes, it is not surprising that private individuals pick up on that theme and expand it. Here are a couple of examples.

My First Book of Mormon Stories goes hand-in-hand with the Primary materials to imprint a Mayan setting in the minds of the children. Presumably the authors and publisher feel safe to depict the Book of Mormon this way because they're basically replicating the ubiquitous Arnold Friberg painting.

The Tennis Shoes series has sold over a million copies and has influenced untold numbers of people.


Of course, people can believe whatever they want. Artists can interpret the text however they want. But parents and teachers and Church leaders and missionaries and individuals need to be aware of the power of media in forming narratives.

It is far better to stick to the text than to rely on these images. In the text, there is not a single pyramid, stone building, or jungle animal or plant.

So why do artists continue to depict Mayan features in Book of Mormon art?