Friday, April 29, 2016

BOMC KnoWhy misses another opportunity

Vitis riparia, one of several indigenous
grapes of North America
As I've said many times, I like BOMC and the work they do. However, their Mesoamerican lenses continue to blind them to some obvious points. All I ask is that they give readers information about the North American setting as an optional alternative to Mesoamerica.

I don't have time to look at every one of the KnoWhys posted by Book of Mormon Central, but I'll try to point out the ones where BOMC misses the biggest opportunities to offer readers some important information.

On April 28, they posted a KnoWhy about wine, here. "Why Does The Book Of Mormon Mention Wine, Vineyards, And Wine-Presses?"

It's a good question, and the answer is easy in the North American setting. Grapes are indigenous to North America, particularly the Eastern U.S. They were part of the diet of pre-Columbian Native Americans there.

By contrast, there are no indigenous grapes in Mesoamerica. Consequently, BOMC suggests the Book of Mormon is referring to "wine" made from bananas, pineapples, and agave. How's that for an answer?

Currently, the BOMC staff consists exclusively of Mesoamerican advocates who see everything through Mesoamerican lenses. They can't unsee Mesoamerica. They only allow Mesoamerican input, and everything they publish is intended to support their unilateral perspective. So long as this is the case, the effort at BOMC is wasted on anyone who is not already wearing Mesoamerican lenses.

Look at this wine issue from the perspective of a non-member, an LDS person who questions the Mesoamerican setting, or someone who already believes an alternative to Mesoamerica. What are the chances you are going to accept an answer that the "wine" in the Book of Mormon was made from bananas, pineapples, and agave because there were no grapes anciently in Mesoamerica?

The chances are low to zero.

Especially when you know the truth about native grapes. Google tells you all you need to know. For example, indigenous grapes from the Midwestern U.S. saved the wine industry in Europe. Europe has one variety of wine-producing grape, but North America has six.

The references to wine in the Book of Mormon text make perfect sense in North America.

To force the text into Mesoamerica, you have to come up with convoluted explanations.


Because they insist on forcing the text into Mesoamerica, the BOMC KnoWhy is schizophrenic. First, they acknowledge the Hebrew background of the Nephites (language, Law of Moses, etc.) but then they impose a Mesoamerican interpretation on the plain words. Look:

"Because there is a wide variety of different wines, “made from fermented grapes or other fruits,”2 it is impossible to be certain what kind of drink is meant, beyond assuming it’s a fermented fruit juice. [The common definition of the term is a beverage made from grapes, as it's used in the Bible. This isn't really so difficult.] Moreover, the Hebrew word for “vineyard” can mean an oil orchard. So these terms are broader in meaning than modern English readers might think.3 [Surely BOMC is not proposing that "wine" in the Book of Mormon means olive oil, but at least they do recognize the Hebrew influence on the Nephite language. The term "wine" is used throughout the Bible, always in reference to grapes (or pomegranate if you accept the Song of Solomon). Grape wine is also related to the Feast of Tabernacles and is symbolic of the Lord's blood.]

"Alcoholic beverages were made from a variety of fruits in the Americas before Columbus. These include bananas, pineapple, and agave, among others. Natives also used palm sap and tree bark with honey to make alcoholic beverages in pre-Columbian times. All of these were called “wine” by the Spaniards who first mentioned them in their writings. Spanish sources also spoke of “vineyards” of agave plants.4" [Of course, nothing in the Bible suggests this type of alcoholic beverage, but what else can you do if you're insisting on Mesoamerica? Anyone not wearing the Mesoamerican lenses won't buy this. I'll skip the rest of this speculation and get to the conclusion, the inevitable quotation from Brother Sorenson: "Sorenson then concluded, “Thus the Book of Mormon statements about wine could turn out to refer either to that drink in the usual European sense or to alternative Mesoamerican intoxicants that were based on other fruits.”9 [Notice, they exclude the most probable and obvious alternative: wine made from grapes indigenous to the Eastern U.S., right where the land of Nephi is in the North American model.]

As if the Know part wasn't bad enough, the Why section is even more convoluted. Look:

"[B]eing aware of the different possibilities invites questions perhaps never before considered. [Mainly because most people don't envision Mesoamerica when they read the text, unless they've been indoctrinated for years and never exposed to a simpler, more logical alternative in North America that also happens to fit with what Joseph and Oliver said in the first place.] For example, visualize that sacred moment when the risen Lord asked the disciples to retrieve both bread and wine for the sacremant [sic] (3 Nephi 18:1–3, 8), and then shortly thereafter Lord Himself miraculously provided wine and bread for a second performance of that sacred ritual (3 Nephi 20:5–8). Was the miraculous wine from the Savior the same variety of wine the disciples brought? If not, why not?

"The deep red wine that comes from grapes strongly symbolizes the blood of Jesus Christ in the administration of the sacrament. image via

"Although speculative, one possible answer is that perhaps the available native wine did not strongly enough symbolize the blood of Christ.10 [Not only speculative, but contrary to Hebrew experience, terminology, and practice. Before Christ came, the Nephites taught about the "blood of the Lamb" (Alma 13:11; 1 Ne. 12:10). Under the law of Moses, wine was consumed by the Priests and at feasts. Would drinking banana wine help them look forward unto Christ?] While accepting the disciples' humble offer the first time, for the second occasion Christ may have chosen to miraculously produce traditional red wine from the Old World in order to more strongly convey to them His important teaching, “he that drinketh of this wine drinketh of my blood to his soul; and his soul shall never hunger nor thirst, but shall be filled” (3 Nephi 20:8). [Or, given the destruction, maybe they just ran out after the first sacrament?]

"This could have provided a powerful visual for Nephites accustomed to drinking yellowish colored wines. Even if this is not the case, being aware of the different possible types of wine allows readers to better visualize Book of Mormon life. [How does it help people "better visualize" when you leave them with such uncertainty and confusion? Put this in the North American context and you have wine made of grapes, just as anyone reading the text would expect, given the Hebrew background and terminology.] This is especially insightful with wine, since it is so frequently mentioned within the text of the Book of Mormon.

BTW, the video is even more unbelievable and could have been fixed so easily.

I have no problem with BOMC presenting this convoluted Mesoamerican spin, but please also give people a concurrent alternative based on the North American setting. It's so much easier to understand.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Accounting for all the evidence, including Cumorah

Mark Allen Wright offered what I consider the best effort by a Mesoamerican advocate to account for all the evidence with his excellent article "Heartland as Hinterland: The Mesoamerican Core and North American Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography." However, in my view, Brother Wright erred on his analysis of Cumorah and got the geography backward. We should embrace the hinterland concept, but I think a North American Core and a Mesoamerican Periphery fits all the evidence.

Here's how Brother Wright addresses Cumorah: "If any specific Book of Mormon site is known for sure, it must be the Hill Cumorah, right? We know that Moroni buried the plates in Cumorah anciently and that Joseph Smith dug them up there. Or do we? To be clear, Moroni never says that he buried the plates in the Hill Cumorah, and there are no firsthand accounts indicating that Joseph Smith ever referred to the hill in New York by the name Cumorah. In fact, a careful reading of Mormon 6:6 makes it clear that all of the Nephite records were buried in Cumorah except the abridgment that would become the Book of Mormon."

This is the Mormon's Cumorah vs Moroni's Cumorah argument that David Palmer and John Clark relied on to conclude that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites could not have taken place in New York, as I've discussed elsewhere.

Comments to Brother Wright's article point out some of the problems, such as Theodore Brandley's comment here: "Both Book of Mormon civilizations ended at Cumorah. All of the documentary evidence indicates that was it was Moroni who stated that Cumorah was the ancient name of the hill in New York. Your suggestion that Mormon 6:6 indicates that the plates of Mormon could not have been buried in ancient Cumorah is also false reasoning. The fact that Mormon gave these plates to Moroni does not preclude Moroni from burying them in the same hill about 35 years later." Brother Brandley also cites the "six documentary sources that confirm it was Moroni who told Joseph Smith, prior to the translation of the Gold Plates, that the hill in Palmyra was anciently known as Cumorah."

Nowhere does Brother Wright mention, let alone address, Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII. Nor do any of the comments to the article.

Hopefully by now everyone reading this blog knows that Letter VII unequivocally states, as a "fact," that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites took place in the mile-wide valley west of the Hill Cumorah in New York. Readers also know that Joseph Smith helped Oliver Cowdery write the letters, that Joseph had his scribes copy them into his journal as part of his history, and that Letter VII was published with the other in the Messenger and Advocate, the Times and Seasons, the Gospel Reflector, and in a stand-alone pamphlet in 1844.

IOW, during Joseph's lifetime, it was universally accepted, as a fact, that the Hill Cumorah--both Mormon's and Moroni's--was in New York. It was in his context that Joseph wrote D&C 128: "Glad tidings from Cumorah!"

No student of the Book of Mormon should ignore Letter VII. I hope every member of the Church today reads it, as they did in Kirtland and Nauvoo when Joseph was alive.


I began my analysis of Book of Mormon geography decades ago as a seminary student while living in Germany. Then I went to BYU and learned the Mesoamerican theory in more detail. For decades, I accepted it by default, but the two-Cumorah theory on which it depends never felt right. I didn't realize until much later that Joseph Fielding Smith had specifically addressed that theory in the 1930s, stating that "because of this theory some members of the Church have become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith of the Book of Mormon."

No truer words about this topic have ever been written. The evidence of that is all around us today.

President Smith went on to write, "It is for this reason that evidence is here presented to show that it is not only possible that these places could be located [in New York] as the Church has held during the past century, but that in very deed such is the case."

Among other things, he cited Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII and notes that the letters "were written at the Prophet's request and under his personal supervision." He points out that Letter VII was published in the Messenger and Advocate and the Times and Seasons. Apparently President Smith didn't know that Joseph had also instructed his scribes to copy the letters into his journal (something I didn't know until I searched in the Joseph Smith Papers) and had given Benjamin Winchester express permission to publish them in the Gospel Reflector.

The more we learn, the more we realize President Smith was right all along.

How the citation cartel handles Cumorah

To resolve the issue of Book of Mormon geography and reach a consensus, it's important to reach a consensus about the Hill Cumorah in New York, as described by Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII.

I think there is zero chance for a consensus until everyone involved deals with Letter VII. If people want to reject Letter VII, that's fine. But let's deal with it directly.

The citation cartel, so far, has completely ignored it. Even knowing President Smith cited it, the citation cartel ignored it when they discussed Cumorah here, and instead promoted a compound hearsay statement from 50 years ago to disregard President Smith's analysis.

Those who have read the book on Letter VII, available here and online here, know that Joseph Fielding Smith specifically rejected the two-Cumorah theory on which the Mesoamerican theory depends. (This is the theory that the hill in New York was merely where Joseph found the plates, and not the scene of the final battles of the Jaredites and the Nephites.)

Here is a summary of how the issue has been addressed over the years. (The detail is on another blog for those interested. I've edited that post for this blog.)

In 1938, as Church Historian and a 28-year member of the Twelve, Joseph Fielding Smith writes an extensive analysis rejecting the two Cumorah theory and declaring that it has led members of the Church to "become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith of the Book of Mormon."

In 1956, now as President of the Quorum of the Twelve, President Smith releases Doctrines of Salvation, compiled by Bruce R. McConkie, that includes the republication of his analysis rejecting the two-Cumorah theory.

In 2010, the Citation Cartel claims that President Smith told Sidney Sperry he could write whatever he wanted, including the two-Cumorah theory, and from that they conclude "It seems clear, then, that Elder (later President) Smith did not regard his views as the product of revelation, nor did he regard it as illegitimate to have a different view of the matter."

What is the basis for this rejection of what President Smith wrote?

"Recollection of John Fugal of Orem, Utah, to Matthew Roper, 15 May 2010. Fugal was a student in a BYU Book of Mormon class where Sperry recounted the experience."

I am not making this up. All the citations are listed here, with online links.

To reject Joseph Fielding Smith's analysis, the citation cartel publishes what Brother Roper says Brother Fugal told him that Brother Sperry said President Smith told him sometime in the 1960s.

You pick which side has more credibility.

Better, follow President Smith's analysis and add more recent discoveries from the Joseph Smith papers, then contrast that with the multiple layers of hearsay that the citation cartel relies upon.

(BTW, isn't it obvious to any Latter-day Saint familiar with Article of Faith 11 that Joseph Fielding Smith was merely recognizing Brother Sperry's own free agency and academic freedom? Nothing in this compound--and self-serving--hearsay recollection from 50 years ago implies that President Smith changed his mind on this topic. If anything, his analysis has become more relevant thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A perfect example of why a concurrent approach is needed

For a while now, I've been asking for and hoping for a truly neutral outlet for presentation of Book of Mormon research. Today I'm offering a perfect example of why a concurrent approach is needed and would be appreciated by readers.

Book of Mormon Central posted an excellent KnoWhy yesterday on barley. The Book of Mormon says the people tilled the ground with seeds of corn, wheat, barley, neas, sheum, and all manner of fruits. (Mosiah 9:9). Archaeologists have, in fact, found pre-Columbian barley in North America. Footnote 2 to the KnoWhy is an nice article by Tyler Livingston titled "Barley and The Book of Mormon: New Evidence."

Here's an excerpt:

"[Little barley] was first discovered in the “Midwest during the Middle Archaic period, at two locationally-close sites. The earliest record came from the Koster North site in central west Illinois, dating to 7,300 B.P. Hordeum pusillumalso occurred at the Napoleon Hollow site, beginning at 6,800 B.P.”[4]Archaeologists are now finding barley in several sites all over North America. Barley has now been discovered in archaeological sites in the following places: Arkansas,[5] Iowa,[6] Illinois,[7] Missouri,[8] North Carolina,[9] Oklahoma,[10] Wisconsin,[11] and Mexico.[12]"

This should be an easy connection with the Book of Mormon narrative, assuming the land of Zarahemla was in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. Limhi traveled from there to the land of Nephi, which is in Tennessee. Chattanooga is about 50 miles from North Carolina.

[Note: According to the reference cited as note 12, the location in Mexico is in Paquime or Casas Grandes, which about 67 miles south of the Arizona border--closer to Missouri than to Chiapas. The reference describes little barley as "an indigenous domesticate found in Eastern North America and the Hohokam region of Arizona."]

Archaeology supports the Book of Mormon--when we look in the right place.

But look at what happens when this is viewed through the Mesoamerican lens. Continuing the quotation from the same article:

"Since most scholars place Book of Mormon events in Central America, many of these sites and cultures would show that barley was native to the Americas, but outside of Book of Mormon parameters. However, since it is now being found in Mexico and the Southwest, it is becoming more likely that Book of Mormon cultures were in contact with cultures from the North, and may have possessed barley...  While the connection between Mesoamerica and Barley is not made,[14] it would seem odd that trade of “principal crops” would take place without the trade of barley. Whether the tradecame from Mesoamerica to Arizona, or the other way around, it would make sense that barley was part of the crop trade between the culture."


Summary: even when archaeology hands us a clear and direct tie to the text, the Mesoamerican theory rejects it in favor of another "it would seem odd" argument.

It is this kind of pretzel twisting that characterizes so much of the Mesoamerican theory (think tapirs, jade, directions, headwaters, etc.). Why do they do it? Because of the anonymous articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons and their distrust of Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith regarding the New York Hill Cumorah.

Think of how much readers would benefit if BOMC would simply add a fair and neutral comment about the North American setting, at least as an alternative to the Mesoamerican setting. Readers everywhere would appreciate a fair and neutral presentation of concurrent geographies.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Objectives and Methodology leading to consensus

Lately I've had some questions about my objectives in writing my blogs and the methodology I'm using. My objectives are spelled out in the masthead, but a lot of people pass right by that.

What I've tried to do here is offer suggestions on how to reach a consensus among LDS scholars regarding Book of Mormon geography. I think it starts with agreement regarding basic facts of Church history, as I've said many times. I'm not asking for agreement on the implications of the facts, or inferences or interpretations. Just agreement regarding basic facts.

I'd like to start with Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII, for example. Certainly the Mesoamerican literature has ignored that letter for decades, and so far, I haven't seen any discussion of it by the citation cartel. I know of no plans for them to do so. The sole breakthrough was Book of Mormon Central putting the book on their web page, which I hope will lead to some sort of consensus on the facts. But even BOMC remains fully and exclusively committed to the Mesoamerican theory.

Next would be an agreement to use the text Joseph translated, but I've had significant resistance on that point as well because the text doesn't mention volcanoes, jade, tapirs, mountainous wilderness, headwaters, or the other staples of the Mesoamerican theory.

Mostly what I'd like to see is a breakup of the citation cartel--a move toward a free market model. When the day comes that the various organizations open their web pages and journals to alternatives to the Mesoamerican model--or faithful criticism of that model--then we'll have a hope of reaching a legitimate consensus. (I make that distinction because for decades, the citation cartel has thought there was a consensus about the Mesoamerican geography, but of course that was an artificial construct. It's like saying the whole world agreed on oil prices because OPEC set them, or like saying everyone in Cuba supports Fidel Castro because he has no political opposition. The nature of a cartel is to suppress alternative views and uncomfortable facts.)

[NOTE: Some people wonder what I mean by the term "citation cartel." It's not a term I invented; it's been used to describe any academic specialty that reinforces the Groupthink by citing one another, rejecting submissions that contradict the Groupthink, and conducting peer approval instead of critical peer review. You can read any of the LDS scholarly publications that publish about Book of Mormon geography and see what I mean. I've submitted material to all the citation cartel members. Apart from Book of Mormon Central, it's a stone wall. BYU Studies didn't acknowledge the submission. The Maxwell Institute said they were full and would consider it later, but of course they never contacted me again. The Interpreter not only refused to publish my material (because, as they said, they disagreed with it), but they censored my comments on their web page. BMAF published an  article criticizing me but refused to publish my rebuttal. That's why I resorted to the blogs. On the Wars and Interpreter blogs, I do peer reviews of articles, books, and presentations that promote the Mesoamerican theory. I wish this entire discussion could be done on an anonymous basis, but of course in reality, individuals write and publish, and they put their names on their work. As I constantly reiterate, I have great respect and admiration for the scholars who have published their research. I don't question their motives or abilities, but I do assess the facts cited and the arguments made.]

Usually when cartels break apart, we learn why they enforced the cartel in the first place: their actions and ideas were not popular. I suspect we'll see the same result with the Mesoamerican citation cartel. For example, on an issue as basic as the Hill Cumorah, once they are made aware of all the facts I doubt many LDS people are going to reject New York in favor of a mountain somewhere in Mesoamerica. 

[Note 2: the rest of this post is cross-posted on the Wars blog]

Here is my view: the Mesoamerican model of Book of Mormon geography is based on a historical mistake (the assumption that Joseph Smith wrote or approved of the anonymous articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons). Ever since, faithful and talented LDS scholars have sought to vindicate what they thought Joseph Smith taught and believed.

It was a reasonable premise, actually, and one that I accepted for decades. But then the Joseph Smith Papers and digital research technology made it possible to uncover previously unknown facts.

There was a time when many faithful LDS were leery of detailed Church history. Books such as Rough Stone Rolling have helped put historical events and personalities in context, and certainly the Joseph Smith Papers have given more people access to more documents than ever before. As a result, we're correcting a lot of historical mistakes. Seethis article in the October Ensign as a great example. The subtitle: "The historical record clarifies how Joseph Smith fulfilled his role as a seer and translated the Book of Mormon."

This historical record is also clarifying what happened in 1842 Nauvoo with the Times and Seasons (the equivalent of today's Ensign). However, the idea that Joseph Smith wrote anonymous articles for the Times and Seasons persists, largely because the Mesoamerican theory depends on those articles.

There are obvious reasons why the idea is ill-conceived.

1. Joseph was never much of an author. He had little formal education; he never prepared written speeches (with one exception); he used scribes to write down what he said and did; and most of the material written in his own handwriting that we do have was written in the early 1830s. Even as late as January 1841, the Lord told him to get help writing (D&C 124:12).

2. Joseph was pressed for time. He had to deal with governing Nauvoo and the Nauvoo legion, organizing and educating the Relief Society, responding to legal action including extradition to Missouri and bankruptcy, handling real estate developments, building the temple and associated doctrines, including baptisms for the dead and the endowment, managing the integration of new coverts from Europe and the Eastern States, overseeing the missionary work, arbitrating conflicts among Church members, responding to hostile media, and more. And yet, the anonymous articles reflect some serious research and reading. There is no evidence that Joseph spent time reading and studying the books cited in these anonymous articles. In June 1842, Wilford Woodruff observed that Joseph hardly had time to sign his name to documents that were prepared for his signature. The assertion that Joseph would write anonymous articles in the midst of all this activity is simply ahistorical nostalgia.

3.  The content of the anonymous articles is problematic. Some of the content contradicts other contemporary teachings that are clearly attributable to Joseph. In other cases, the articles are irrational and counterfactual.

Much of what has passed for historical analysis on this issue suffers from presentism, which is "the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past." It's a common fallacy of historical writing, whereby historians interpret the past to validate their own beliefs.

In this case, we have Mesoamerican theorists (those who believe the Book of Mormon events took place in Central America) interpreting the historical record to justify their beliefs. One primary example is the way they discredit the writing of Oliver Cowdery about the Hill Cumorah in New York in his Letter VII. Although Joseph Smith helped him write that letter, had his scribes copy it into his own journal as part of his history, and explicitly approved the re-publication of the letter (it was published at least 4 times during Joseph's lifetime), Mesoamerican scholars continue to insist that Joseph never said anything about Cumorah except for Section 128--and some even claim that SEction 128 pays homage to a hill in Mesoamerica!

Presentism also appears in the insistence by Mesoamerican proponents that Joseph wrote anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons. They use those articles to claim Joseph merely speculated about Book of Mormon geography, that he changed his mind, and that he thought scholarship would answer the questions. How much more self-serving could historical interpretation be than that?

I'm not arguing against scholarship; to the contrary, I think scholarship is essential. We are to "seek learning, even by study and also by faith." In this context, I interpret that to mean neither of those elements should be used in isolation.

In my own analysis, I started with a hypothesis based on faith that 1) the Hill Cumorah is in New York (D&C 128 and Letter VII) and that 2) Zarahemla was in Iowa, across from Nauvoo (D&C 125). Then I tested the hypothesis "by study" of the text and relevant disciplines of geography, geology, anthropology, archaeology, and history (both of the Church and of North America). In my view, everything fits the North American setting.

In stark contrast, the Mesoamerican theory requires people to jettison what Oliver Cowdery said about Cumorah, to reject Joseph's explicit endorsement of Oliver's work, and to resort to what I consider sophistry to explain away everything else Joseph said or wrote about the topic (as well as David Whitmer's testimony about Cumorah). Instead, people are expected to accept articles in the Times and Seasons that are so unreliable and counterfactual that even the original author left them anonymous. Then, as "evidence," we are expected to accept a series of "correspondences" between Mayan culture and the descriptions in the text, even though such "correspondences" are ubiquitous in human cultures around the world and throughout human history.

What accounts for the persistence of the Mesoamerican theory? So far, I've identified two key points.

First, there is a tremendous amount of intellectual inertia. Generations of Mormons have been raised with the Arnold Friberg illustrations of Central America, the "hourglass" depiction of the "abstract" map of Book of Mormon lands, and the waves of publications by LDS scholars that uniformly endorse and promote the Mesoamerican theory to the exclusion of alternatives. The theory has acquired a life of its own. I've had Mesoamerica proponents tell me recently that the Times and Seasons articles have nothing to do with the Mesoamerican theory, which is like saying Thomas Jefferson had nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence. It takes tremendous energy to swim upstream against the Mesoamerican current, and will take even more to divert the flow of scholarship into the North American channel, but I think LDS scholars will find this new course far more rewarding.

Second, to a significant degree the Mesoamerican theory was a response to the anti-Mormon argument that the Book of Mormon merely articulates the old Moundbuilder legends; i.e., that Joseph Smith was simply retelling stories he'd heard growing up of an ancient advanced civilization that was destroyed by savages. I think there may be an element of concern among modern LDS scholars that a focus on North America will revive that old argument, but I also think they will soon realize there's nothing to fear on that account.

Overall, I'm optimistic that there will be open-minded LDS scholars who will take another look at what has happened over the last 50 years or so. Like me, I think they will be surprised at how superficial much of the scholarship has been. There has been a tremendous amount of confirmation bias, and scholars have been much too quick to dismiss what Oliver Cowdery wrote. As I indicated at the outset, this has largely been due to a historical mistake. I hope we can correct the errors and move forward with greater unity.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Campus Unicorns

Campus Unicorns - photo: iStock from WSJ
Another way to look at the problem of Mesoamerican dominance at BYU/CES is by analogy to the situation in universities generally with respect to political orientation. Most of academia is liberal. For example, only 6.6% of professors in the social sciences are Republicans.

In a similar way, most of the BYU/CES faculty follows the Mesoamerican theory. The research groups--FARMS/Maxwell Institute, BYU Studies, BAMF, AAF, the Interpreter, and the other groups shown as links on the BOMC web page (the citation cartel)--are exclusively Mesoamerican in orientation. They refuse to publish anything that contradicts their Mesoamerican theory. This constitutes a serious impediment to the search for truth.

Today's Wall St. Journal has a piece by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. titled "Campus Unicorns: Conservative Teachers."* They make an important point that relates directly to the problem with the Mesoamerican theory:

"Political bias expresses an intellectual orientation—one that inclines us to find some questions more important and some explanations more plausible. Because of this, none of us can rely on our fellow partisans to identify flaws in our thinking. Building an academic community with varied biases, then, is essential to the very health of the social sciences. Political uniformity makes it difficult to converge on the best approximation of the truth.

"It’s true that in some happy cases social science is self-correcting. But it can take a very long time. Sociologists spent decades playing down the importance of two-parent households before finally admitting that family structure matters. As a conservative in the field told us: “Basically, sociology had to be dragged kicking and screaming until it recognized that broken families aren’t a good thing. It’s like, if you have to spend decades and millions of dollars in [National Science Foundation] grants to convince astronomers that the sun rises in the east.”"

The parallels should be obvious. Shields and Dunn could just as well have written that when you see social science through a liberal lens, you can't unsee it.

A key analogy from the quotation is that Mesoamerican scholars cannot rely on their fellow partisans to identify flaws in their thinking. This is apparent to anyone who reads the material published by the citation cartel (as I show on the other blogs). These scholars convey a pretense of diversity by quibbling about which river in Mesoamerica is the Sidon, but they simply can't see the fundamental flaw in their basic premise or the logical errors in their thinking and writing.

This Mesoamerican uniformity makes it difficult to seek the truth, let alone find it. The charters of BMAF and BOMC don't even pretend to be seeking the truth; instead, they focus on "research and evidences regarding Book of Mormon archaeology, anthropology, geography and culture within a Mesoamerican context," thereby limiting themselves to a flawed and narrow agenda.

The quotation Shields and Dunn provide about two-parent households and the sun rising in the east has an exact analogy in Book of Mormon studies. The Mesoamerican scholars who dominate BYU/CES have to be dragged kicking and screaming until they recognize that Joseph and Oliver put Cumorah in New York all along.

Shields and Dunn "hope to persuade more liberal professors of the importance of viewpoint diversity—something that would require them to cultivate a distrust of their own reason and impartiality." That's exactly what I've been trying to do for the last 16 months, so far to no avail. The Mesoamerican seers are not only convinced of the correctness of their theory, they don't see any need to "distrust their own reason and impartiality." In fact, they don't want to be impartial.

Their minds are made up. Thanks to their Mesoamerican lens, they can't unsee it.

Parents of students at BYU/CES--and the students themselves--should be aware of this situation. They should resist being indoctrinated in Mesoamerican theory without at least a fair and equal presentation of alternatives.
*Mr. Shields is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Mr. Dunn is an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. They are the authors of “Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University” (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Scholarship: a matter of degrees

One question that arises often is "How could all the Book of Mormon scholars be wrong?"

To this, I answer they're not all wrong. There is a tremendous amount of scholarship on Book of Mormon topics that is informative, enlightening and inspiring. In fact, I'd say Book of Mormon scholarship is in good shape on most topics except for the geography question.

But that's a big problem.

Scholarship builds on itself, which can be good or bad. If the underlying premise is sound, the scholarship can be sound. But if the underlying premise is faulty, the scholarship will also be faulty--unless someone points out the error and the scholars respond.

Scholarship based on a faulty premise is like a GPS with a bad map: it can be technically accurate and even precise, but it will take you on a non-existent road and lead you off a cliff.

Another approach is is the famous quotation by Richard Feynman: "Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts." In the context of BYU/CES scholarship on Book of Mormon geography, there may be an element of ignorance about Church history involved, but in my opinion, based on the articles I've been reviewing on the other blog, it's more a case of choosing to see the text through a Mesoamerican lens and then being unable to unsee Mesoamerica. This lens has set them on a course that is off by a few degrees.


There's a famous talk by President Uchtdorf titled "A Matter of a Few Degrees" that describes the problem of a faulty premise:

"In 1979 a large passenger jet with 257 people on board left New Zealand for a sightseeing flight to Antarctica and back. Unknown to the pilots, however, someone had modified the flight coordinates by a mere two degrees. This error placed the aircraft 28 miles (45 km) to the east of where the pilots assumed they were. As they approached Antarctica, the pilots descended to a lower altitude to give the passengers a better look at the landscape. Although both were experienced pilots, neither had made this particular flight before, and they had no way of knowing that the incorrect coordinates had placed them directly in the path of Mount Erebus, an active volcano that rises from the frozen landscape to a height of more than 12,000 feet (3,700 m).

"As the pilots flew onward, the white of the snow and ice covering the volcano blended with the white of the clouds above, making it appear as though they were flying over flat ground. By the time the instruments sounded the warning that the ground was rising fast toward them, it was too late. The airplane crashed into the side of the volcano, killing everyone on board.

"It was a terrible tragedy brought on by a minor error—a matter of only a few degrees."


Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery set a clear course on the topic of Book of Mormon geography. Letter VII is unequivocal: Cumorah is in New York. Letter VII is contained in the personal journal Joseph kept with him in Nauvoo, which he had with him when he wrote the letter that became D&C 128 ("Glad tidings from Cumorah!"). Letter VII had been republished in the Times and Seasons the year before.

Had the scholars stayed on that course, they would not have crashed into Mesoamerica. 

For the current and future generations, though, it's not too late to change course.

(Speaking of Mesoamerica, it's ironic that in President Uchtdorf's talk, the airplane crashed into the side of a volcano, much as the Mesoamerican advocates keep insisting the text talks about volcanoes.)

At this point, the only question is whether the BYU/CES scholars are willing to change course. That remains to be seen.

One good indicator to watch is Book of Mormon Central. A course correction there would be allowing presentation of concurrent geography ideas on an equal basis. A continued focus exclusively on the Mesoamerican setting would mean more crashes.

There are about 100,000 airline flights every day, each of them following a specific course to deliver passengers to their intended destinations. If airlines can figure this out, surely LDS scholars can correct their courses and deliver accurate and useful knowledge about Book of Mormon geography to their students and readers.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

BMAF conference

Yesterday I attended the 2016 BMAF conference. Apparently this is their last conference because the group is merging into BOMC. The conference was well managed and the presentations were effective.

My takeaway: we're much closer to consensus that I realized. With one exception,* every one of the talks could have been given in the context of a North American setting instead of the Mesoamerican setting. In fact, they would have been more persuasive with a North American setting.

The first presentation was "Introduction to Book of Mormon Central." It was excellent. There is tremendous potential for this initiative, and I fully support it. although I think they've got to get their thumbs off the Mesoamerican scale ASAP. The Mesoamerican focus impairs their objectivity and thereby undermines their credibility, IMO. I hope they transition to a "concurrent" approach that gives a voice to all the various models of geography. An equal voice would be ideal, but any voice at all would be a big improvement, both in the usefulness of the resource and in its credibility. I think they should trust users with more information, not less, and right now, they are filtering out pretty much every geography theory except Mesoamerica. Many members of the Church know what's going on and don't like it. But this editorial policy can be changed very quickly. It should have been changed before the web page was launched. The sooner this is changed, the better.

The second presentation was on Fish, Grain and Man in Mesoamerica and Scripture. The basic idea is that Mesoamerican mythology uses fish and maize to represent a sort of resurrection, and then Christ was associated with fish and grain, so there is a connection. It was an interesting presentation, but had absolutely nothing to do with Book of Mormon geography. Pretty much every culture uses fish and grain as religious symbols. It would have been more interesting to see how North American cultures used these symbols.

The third presentation was on Hebrew and Egyptian contributions to Uto-Aztecan languages. There are impressive links--around 1400 terms--between these languages. Uto-Aztecan is unrelated to Mayan languages, so (if I understood correctly) the presenter suggested Hagoth's people brought the Hebrew and Egyptian influences into the Uto-Aztecan areas (which are mainly in what is now the Southwestern U.S.) Here's the kind of question I would have liked to have had discussed: If the term "Sidon" is Phoenician (which most people think), then how did it get applied to a river in Mayan Mesoamerica that is far away from the Uto-Aztecan language territory? I think the presentation would have been far more interesting if it had focused on the Algonquin connection, which was mentioned only once. I'd like to know more about the interaction between Uto-Aztecan and the Algonquin and other Eastern Native American languages.

The fourth presentation was the best, I thought (and not just because I've made very similar presentations in the past). It covered the arrival of Nephi in the promised land and suggested Lehi's group landed in a sparsely populated area, but not one that was uninhabited. I agree with all of this. There were some great points about seeds and metals. The analysis kind of broke down, though, in three places. One was the Pacific crossing, which contradicts known agronomy, currents, winds, and actual experience (not to mention Isaiah 18:1). Second, animals; the presenter resorted to Sorenson's chart of equivalent species. The third problem was the chronology of Guatemala City. The presenter could have given the same presentation with a North American setting and avoided these problems, which would have greatly strengthened the points.

The fifth presentation was the exception I mentioned above. The presenter is excellent, and the material is good, but IMO it has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon, as explained below.

The final presenter discussed "A Glimpse into Lamanite Culture." It was basically material out of his book, which I think is an excellent book if you want to know about Mesoamerica. If you want to know about the Book of Mormon, not so much. If this author would set aside the Mesoamerican lenses for a minute, he could do some phenomenal work in North America.

All in all, it was a worthwhile conference. I made some notes and got some new insights, but I didn't see a single slide or hear a single comment that made Mesoamerica a more plausible setting for the Book of Mormon than North America. Some day I hope to see each of these presenters fixing their presentations by focusing on North America.

*The exception was the talk on volcanoes, which to me is the epitome of Mesoamerican seership. Everyone knows the text never mentions volcanoes, but that doesn't deter the Mesoamerican seers for an instant. They read "volcano" into the text, apparently believing that Samuel the Lamanite, Nephi, and Mormon just didn't know the term for a big mountain that periodically erupts and wreaks havoc. Well, maybe that's unfair. Maybe there was only one volcanic eruption in 1,000 years of Nephite history in Mesoamerica, which must be a record for volcanic quiescence in that region. In that case, the Nephite authors had no idea what a volcano was. They didn't know what volcanic ash was, either. There were just earthquakes and storms and thick darkness. It was the first earthquake in world history to spew enough ash that you couldn't see for 3 days, yet cause no impediment to travel, agriculture, etc. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Fact-based consensus

Although this blog focuses on seeking a consensus about Book of Mormon geography and historicity, it's a mistake to seek consensus solely for the sake of achieving a consensus. If everyone agrees on something that is false, what's the value of unity?

For this reason, I'm hoping to first achieve consensus about a few basic facts, starting with the Hill Cumorah. People can make their own inferences about the significance of the facts, but we should all be able to agree on these facts:

1. Oliver Cowdery's letter VII specifically identified the New York Hill Cumorah as the scene of the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites. He said this was a fact.

2. Letter VII was published in the Messenger and Advocate (1835), the Times and Seasons (1841) and the Gospel Reflector (1841).

3. Joseph Smith helped Oliver write the letters and had them copied into his personal journal (1835).

4. Orson Pratt published parts of Letter VII in his 1840 pamphlet "An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions" that was used as the template for the Wentworth letter, including the Articles of Faith.

5. The letters were republished in a single volume in Liverpool (1844) in response to frequent solicitation from members of the Church.

Can everyone agree with this? If so, let's see the citation cartel start including these facts in their publications, web pages, and presentations.


The issue of Letter VII is fascinating to me. Every member of the citation cartel has known about Letter VII, but they have carefully avoided mentioning it. A Church History Symposium at BYU in 2006 was titled "Days Never to be Forgotten," a quotation from one of Oliver's letters to W.W. Phelps. The proceedings were published in a 403-page volume. Several of Oliver's letters to Phelps were quoted and discussed, but not once was Letter VII or VIII mentioned. This is a significant omission because Oliver's letters were his best-known compositions in the early days of the Church, having been republished so many times in response to public demand.

The Book of Mormon Reference Companion by Dennis L. Largey, published by Deseret Book in 2003, has an entry on Cumorah that repeats the citation cartel's mantra. First, it cites Palmer's two-Cumorah book. Then the entry says this: "Just when this New York hill was first called Cumorah is difficult to determine, but by 1835 the name Cumorah seemed to be well-known, at least among Church members." Letter VII is never mentioned, of course.

The only citation cartel article I've found that does mention Letter VII misrepresents it. I pointed out here that the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies published an article by Martin Raish that quoted Letter VII and Letter VIII, but also claimed that Oliver didn't refer to the site by the name Cumorah. Not only did Oliver refer to Cumorah several times in those letters, but he did so in the sentence immediately following the one Raish quoted! Unsuspecting readers would never know the truth from reading this article.

For those interested, over on the other blog, I'm documenting facts I'm finding in the things published by the citation cartel that aren't quite what they should be, if we're going to apply facts and rational argument to the issues. People can believe whatever they want, of course; I just object when they don't accurately report facts and when they write logical fallacies under the guise of scholarship. I realize there is a consensus among many LDS scholars (and CES people) about the Mesoamerican geography, but I'm showing that this consensus has been built with factual errors and omissions, logical fallacies, and mistaken inferences about Church history.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Stumbling Blocks

The Apostle Paul described impediments to consensus and unity as stumbling blocks.

Romans 14:13 Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.

In his day, Paul dealt with problems such as these:

- Circumcision: Do you have to be Jewish before you accept the Gospel?

- Meat: Can you eat meat, or should you be vegetarian?

- Idols: Can you eat meat dedicated to idols?

He addressed these points in several of his epistles. In Romans 14, he specifically addressed eating meat:

2 For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.

3 Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not;
and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth:
for God hath received him.

The problem of despisers and judges persists in our day, but recognizing the problems can help us get through them and resolve conflicts.

As I've thought about stumbling blocks, particularly with respect to Book of Mormon historicity, I've made a short list that summarizes what I've tried to discuss on this blog so far. I'm making these the focus of my presentations lately. Eventually, I think it will be possible to agree on the basic facts, while leaving interpretation open to individual preferences.

- Two-Cumorah theory
- Reliance on anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons
- Reading things into the text that aren't there (e.g., headwaters of Sidon, etc.)