Since the early 1830s there has been a variety of opinions about Book of Mormon geography. Difference of opinion persist. In 1890, George Q. Cannon noted that some of the brethren were studying the geography of the Book of Mormon.
He focused on the problem that those who study the geography "are not united in their conclusions."
If we were united, the problem would go away and the positive aspects of the study of Book of Mormon geography and historicity would become evident. As he wrote over 100 years ago, "We are greatly pleased to notice the increasing interest taken by the Saints in this holy book." A united voice on the geography question would have the same benefits in our day--when study of the Book of Mormon is more urgently needed than ever before.
President Cannon noted that "no two original investigators" could agree on all the details of a geography based on the text. This is why we can never reach a consensus about Book of Mormon geography if we rely on the text alone. Instead, we need modern revelation, which gives us two pins in the map: Cumorah and Zarahemla.
Another thing to remember is that while the Church has not taken a formal position on any particular geography, only one specific geography has been identified as incorrect. This is the one that causes Church members to become "confused and greatly disturbed in their faith of the Book of Mormon," according to Joseph Fielding Smith. Of course, he was referring to the two-Cumorah theory.
Although he was specifically referring to the idea of a second "Cumorah" in Mexico, his rationale applies to any proposed geography that puts Cumorah anywhere but in New York.
To reach a consensus about Book of Mormon geography, an important step would be taking the advice of President Smith and reaffirming that Cumorah is in New York.
Not only was the New York setting for Cumorah unambiguously and universally accepted so long as Joseph Smith was alive, but this understanding extended beyond his death. In fact, "All nineteenth-century writers on Book of Mormon geography apparently assumed that the place where Joseph Smith found the plates and the hill where the Nephites met their destruction were identical."
So I propose, again, that any legitimate Book of Mormon geography must at least locate Cumorah in New York.
Obviously, this will require a reassessment of many geography theories that have been proposed.
As I've said, those theories are fine for people who want to consider the Book of Mormon as a sort of parable that can be adapted to a local setting. If that works for people, great.
But for those who accept the Book of Mormon as a literal history of real people living in a real place, we need to stick with the New York Cumorah and build out from there.
I realize that changing one's views is difficult, but B.H. Roberts wrote something I hope all Book of Mormon enthusiasts can take to heart:
"We desire only to ascertain the truth; nothing but the truth will endure; and the ascertainment of the truth and the proclamation of the truth in any given case, or upon any subject, will do no harm to the work of the Lord which is itself truth. Nor need we be surprised if now and then we find our predecessors, many of whom bear honored names and deserve our respect and gratitude for what they achieved in making clear the truth, as they conceived it to be—we need not be surprised if we sometimes find them mistaken in their conceptions and deductions; just as the generations who succeed us in unfolding in a larger way some of the yet unlearned truths of the Gospel, will find that we have had some misconceptions and made some wrong deductions in our day and time. . . . The generation which preceded us did not exhaust by their knowledge all the truth, so that nothing was left for us in its unfolding; no, not even in respect of the Book of Mormon; any more than we shall exhaust all discovery in relation to that book and leave nothing for the generation following us to develop. All which is submitted, especially to the membership of the Church, that they may be prepared to find and receive new truths both in the Book of Mormon itself and about it; and that they may also rejoice in the fact that knowledge of truth is inexhaustible, and will forever go on developing."
B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3:503-4, emphasis added.
IOW, just because some scholars from the past or present have reached conclusions doesn't mean they have not been mistaken in their conceptions and deductions.
Two major mistakes have been:
1) relying on the anonymous 1842 Times and Seasons articles and
2) rejecting what the early brethren--and Joseph Fielding Smith as late as 1953--said about Cumorah in New York.
Fixing those two mistakes alone would bring everyone much closer to consensus.
THE JUVENILE INSTRUCTOR
GEORGE Q. CANNON, EDITOR.
SALT LAKE CITY, JANUARY I, 1890.
The Book of Mormon Geography.
THERE is a tendency, strongly manifested at the present time among some of the brethren, to study the geography of the Book of Mormon. We have heard of numerous lectures, illustrated by suggestive maps, being delivered on this subject during the present winter, generally under the auspices of the Improvement Societies and Sunday Schools. We are greatly pleased to notice the increasing interest taken by the Saints in this holy book. It contains the fullness of the gospel of Christ, and those who prayerfully study its sacred pages can be made wise unto salvation. It also unravels many mysteries connected with the history of the ancient world, more particularly of this western continent, mysteries
which no other book explains. But valuable as is the Book of Mormon both in doctrine and history, yet it is possible to put this sacred volume to uses for which it was never intended, uses which are detrimental rather than advantageous to the cause of truth, and consequently to the work of the Lord.
We have been led to these thoughts from the fact that the brethren who lecture on the lands of the Nephites or the geography of the Book of Mormon are not united in their conclusions. No two of them, so far as we have learned, are agreed on all points, and in many cases the variations amount to tens of thousands of miles. These differences of views lead to discussion, contention and perplexity ;
and we believe more confusion is caused by these divergences than good is done by the truths elicited.
How is it that there is such a variety of ideas on this subject? Simply because the Book of Mormon is not a geographical primer. It was not written to teach geographical truths. What is told us of the situation of the various lands or cities of the ancient Jaredites, Nephites and Lamanites is usually
simply an incidental remark connected with the doctrinal or historical portions of the work; and almost invariably only extends to a statement of the relative position of some land or city to contiguous or surrounding places, and nowhere gives us the exact situation or boundaries so that it can be definitely
located without fear of error.
It must be remembered that geography as a science, like chronology and other branches of education, was not understood nor taught after the manner or by the methods of the moderns. It could not be amongst those peoples who were not acquainted with the size and form of the earth, as was the case
with most of the nations of antiquity, though not with the Nephites. Their seers and prophets appear to have received divine light on this subject.
The First Presidency have often been asked to prepare some suggestive map illustrative of Nephite geography, but have never consented to do so. Nor are we acquainted with any of the Twelve Apostles who would undertake such a task. The reason is, that without further information they are not prepared even to suggest. The word of the Lord or the translation of other ancient records is required to clear up many points now so obscure that, as we have said, no two original investigators agree with regard to them. When, as is the case, one student places a certain city at the Isthmus of Panama, a
second in Venezuela, and a third in Guiana or northern Brazil, it is obvious that suggestive maps prepared by these brethren would confuse instead of enlighten ; and they cannot be thus far apart in this one important point without relative positions being also widely separate.
For these reasons we have strong objections to the introduction of maps and their circulation among our people which profess to give the location of the Nephite cities and settlements. As we have said, they have a tendency to mislead, instead of enlighten, and they give rise to discussions which will lead to division of sentiment and be very unprofitable. We see no necessity for maps of this character, because, at least, much would be left to the imagination of those who prepare them; and we hope that there will be no attempt made to introduce them or give them general circulation. Of course, there can be no harm result from the study of the geography of this continent at the time it was settled by the Nephites, drawing all the information possibly from the record which has been translated for our benefit. But beyond this we do not think it necessary, at the present time, to go, because it is plain to be seen, we think, that evils may result therefrom.