Still, there is a lot of confusion in the Church about the Book of Mormon. I attribute this primarily to the intellectuals who disagree with the prophets and apostles about the location of the Hill Cumorah.
In this post, I'll review how we got to this point and then offer suggestions for solving the problem.
I realize this is a long post--but there's a lot more I could say. Email me if you have questions.
It has taken a lot of effort, involving denial and sophistry, to justify the theory that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica and that there are two Cumorahs, with the "real Cumorah" being somewhere in southern Mexico.
Or somewhere else, such as Baja California, Panama, Peru, Chile, etc.
As I explain below, the only real consensus the intellectuals have reached is that the prophets and apostles are wrong about the New York Cumorah.
This narrative has been taught for decades at BYU and in CES, to the point where, in the minds of most members of the Church, it has become the default (yet unofficial) position of the Church. I explained this process in a recent post, here.
The truth is so much simpler.
1. When he first appeared to Joseph Smith, Moroni told him that the record of the Nephites had been "written and deposited" not far from his home. This means Mormon and Moroni both lived in western New York when they abridged the Nephite and Jaredite records.
2. Mormon explained that "having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites, (for the Lamanites would destroy them) therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni." (Mormon 6:6)
3. On multiple occasions, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery visited Mormon's depository of records in the Hill Cumorah in New York. For that reason, and in response to anti-Mormon claims that Joseph wrote the Book of Mormon himself, they explained it was a fact that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites took place in the mile-wide valley west of Cumorah. (Letter VII)
4. All of Joseph's contemporaries and Priesthood successors who have discussed Cumorah have affirmed this straightforward teaching, including members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference.
5. Knowing that Cumorah is in New York doesn't tell us everything about Book of Mormon geography, but it tells us what we need to know to be grounded in reality. Any proposed geography that doesn't put Cumorah in New York cannot be correct.
6. Because some intellectuals have rejected the prophets and apostles on this specific point, they are left standing "as it were in the air, high above the earth," with no foundation. (1 Nephi 8:26) Instead, they are left to their own devices, which has led to the massive and widespread confusion in the Church about the Book of Mormon.
How did we get to this point?
I've discussed the history of the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory in detail here.
Until the 1980s, there was no question about the location of Cumorah. Every one of Joseph's contemporaries accepted this, based on numerous details, some of which I mentioned above.*
Members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve spoke about the New York Cumorah in General Conference in the 1970s. The official edition of the Book of Mormon included photos of the New York Cumorah and the Arnold Friberg painting of Mormon and Moroni, together, on top of the Hill Cumorah in New York.
But in the 1980s, the intellectuals changed the narrative.
In 1981, David A. Palmer published a book titled In Search of Cumorah which claimed that the Hill Cumorah could not be in New York after all. The book jacket explains that "The Cumorah of New York state is identified as 'Moroni's Cumorah,' where Moroni finally deposited the plates which were later uncovered and translated by Joseph Smith. The author makes a clear and convincing case for the belief that this area is not the same hill as 'Mormon's Cumorah,' where the last Nephite defense was staged."
Brother Palmer also wrote the entry on Cumorah in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (EOM), published in 1992 after many years of development. This enshrined his thesis as the quasi-official Church position, because although the EOM is not an official Church publication, BYU published it and groups such as FairMormon emphasize that Elders Dallin H. Oaks, Neal A. Maxwell, and Jeffrey R. Holland worked on the project.
Brother Palmer's entry says this:
"[The] annual pageant has reinforced the common assumption that Moroni buried the plates of Mormon in the same hill where his father had buried the other plates, thus equating this New York hill with the Book of Mormon Cumorah. Because the New York site does not readily fit the Book of Mormon description of Book of Mormon geography, some Latter-day Saints have looked for other possible explanations and locations, including Mesoamerica. Although some have identified possible sites that may seem to fit better (Palmer), there are no conclusive connections between the Book of Mormon text and any specific site that has been suggested. "
The only references in the Bibliography are to John Clark, David Palmer himself, and John L. Sorenson, all three of whom are deeply committed proponents of the Mesoamerican theory. The article doesn't cite or even mention Letter VII or any of the statements of the prophets and apostles who have affirmed the New York location of Cumorah.
Also in 1981, John L. Sorenson circulated a manuscript for his book, eventually published by Deseret Book in 1984, titled An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. (I participated in the peer review through an archaeologist friend of mine.) This book became the standard reference for Book of Mormon historicity and geography. Like many others, I was convinced by Brother Sorenson's research and arguments.
The editor of the Ensign became fascinated by the Mesoamerican theory. In conjunction with the publication of his book, Brother Sorenson published two articles in the Ensign about his theory. Part 1 of "Digging into the Book of Mormon: Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and its Scripture" was published in the September 1984 Ensign, available here. Part 2 was published in the October 1984 edition, available here.
The articles set out a series of supposed "correspondences" between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon. They encouraged further study. "The demonstrated congruence of Book of Mormon patterns with a vast amount of data on Mesoamerica, even without considering its agreement with Old World patterns, really ought to silence would-be commentators until they have carefully investigated what is now a complex body of information."
In 1981, the Church also changed the artwork in the Book of Mormon, apparently to reflect this new narrative. I examined this in detail here. The Friberg painting of the New York Cumorah was deleted and replaced with the Tom Lovell painting of "Moroni Burying the Plates" by himself, a reflection of Brother Palmer's theory.
While his New York Cumorah painting was removed, three of Friberg's Mesoamerican-themed paintings were retained.
The John Scott painting "Jesus Christ visits the Americas," showing the Savior visiting a Mayan ruin with Chichen Itza in the background, was added. [Note: the url incorrectly labels this painting "Christ teaching Nephites."] This painting is now ubiquitous in the Church, appearing in chapels, temples, and visitors centers, even though it is anachronistic and contradicts the text itself. But far more people have seen this painting than have read the Book of Mormon.
Next came the visitors centers, which specifically teach the Palmer/Sorenson two-Cumorahs theory, as I've shown here.
The question remains: Why did this narrative replace the consistent and specific teachings of the prophets and apostles over 150 years?
Basically, the intellectuals decided that the prophets and apostles were wrong.
The intellectuals relied on (i) the anonymous 1842 Times and Seasons articles, incorrectly attributed to Joseph Smith, and (ii) the false idea that there is no archaeology to support the Book of Mormon in North America, when they should have just trusted the prophets and apostles in the first place.
Most of their discussions lately involve interpreting the text, but this is a fool's errand. Like most texts, the Book of Mormon is subject to nearly infinite interpretations. Once the intellectuals rejected the prophets and apostles (and the Doctrine and Covenants), they have had a heyday with the text, the same way Biblical scholars come up with infinite variations. There are thousands of Christians sects, all insisting their interpretation is correct, just as there are hundreds of theories of Book of Mormon geography. The LDS intellectuals have a "consensus" about their interpretation, but the only thing they really have in common is that Cumorah cannot be in New York. That's how we end up with models based in Baja, Mexico, Guatemala, Yucatan, Panama, Chile, Peru, etc.
IOW, the only real consensus the intellectuals have reached is that the prophets and apostles are wrong about the New York Cumorah.
Any interpretation of a text is a function of mental filters, usually driven by an agenda. In the case of the Book of Mormon, think of the difference between these two filters:
1. An interpretation that seeks to corroborate and support what Joseph, Oliver and all the other prophets and apostles have taught about Cumorah being in New York; or
2. An interpretation that seeks to establish a Mesoamerican setting, based on a two-Cumorahs theory that deems Joseph and Oliver and all the other prophets and apostles to be wrong; i.e., confused speculators who misled the Church.
Which filter would you apply?
Which filter would you like to see the Church apply?
Accepting the New York Cumorah will not resolve all questions about Book of Mormon geography, but it will accomplish the main point because it will mean that members of the Church, including the intellectuals, will be united in supporting and sustaining the teachings of the prophets and apostles.
Let's turn to the reasons why the intellectuals decided to repudiate the prophets and apostles.
1. Times and Seasons articles. The 1842 Times and Seasons published several anonymous articles that linked the Book of Mormon to ruins in Central America. Because the boilerplate at the end of every issues from March through October listed Joseph Smith as Editor, Printer and Publisher, people assumed ever since that Joseph actually wrote, or at least approved of, these articles. IOW, they have assumed Joseph himself taught that the Book of Mormon took place in Central America.
To their credit, the intellectuals who promote the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory originally thought they were vindicating Joseph Smith's statements, based on their assumption that Joseph wrote these anonymous articles.
However, the assumption was wrong.
I've written three heavily annotated books to explain why. My first book, The Lost City of Zarahemla, attracted some opposition from the Mesoamerican proponents. I responded in detail, but also incorporated their suggestions in a second edition. Then I published the rest of my research in Brought to Light and The Editors: Joseph, William and Don Carlos Smith.
Joseph had nothing to do with these anonymous articles; he had little to do with the Times and Seasons at all. (Anyone who thinks the boilerplate means Joseph actually edited the newspaper must also believe Joseph actually printed the newspaper. Joseph was far too busy during 1842 to spend his time on either activity.)
Instead, it was William Smith who was editing both the Times and Seasons and the Wasp, likely with the assistance of W.W. Phelps. They were publishing material sent by contributors, primarily Benjamin Winchester.
I've been informed that these Times and Seasons articles have been a major factor for Church leaders to accept the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory. Now that we understand the history better--now that we know Joseph had nothing to do with them--that misdirection should no longer be a factor.
Plus, we now know that Joseph wrote the Wentworth letter by referring to Oliver's eight historical letters and Orson Pratt's pamphlet, "A Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions." Orson Pratt spend several pages discussing his hemispheric model, including Central America. Joseph deleted Orson's speculation and instead declared that the remnant of Lehi's people "are the Indians that now inhabit this country."
[Note: You can read the entire Wentworth letter in the Ensign here. However, the influence of the intellectuals is so pervasive that the lesson manual, Teaching of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, actually deleted this passage from the chapter on the Wentworth Letter. Joseph had been concerned that Mr. Wentworth might not publish his article entire, but he didn't need to worry about Mr. Wentworth; he needed to worry about the Curriculum Committee that is dominated by people who believe the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory.]
Joseph's contemporaries accepted the New York Cumorah, but they were enthusiastic about the ruins in Central America so they disregarded his declaration about the Indians in the United States. They disregarded the revelations (D&C 28, 30, 32) that identified the Lamanites as the tribes living in the United States. Benjamin Winchester, William Smith, and the Pratt brothers, all close friends and missionary companions who wrote and published profusely, shared a missionary zeal for linking the Book of Mormon to exciting finds in Central America. But Joseph never once shared their enthusiasm and the idea that he did has led intellectuals to reject what Joseph and Oliver actually taught about the Hill Cumorah.
This is a tragic mistake that can be easily rectified by returning to the teachings of the prophets and apostles about Cumorah.
As a follow-up question, we wonder, why haven't the intellectuals made the change?
Many, if not all, of them now recognize Joseph didn't write the Times and Seasons articles. (This is a relief for many people, because the articles themselves bordered on absurdity.) Some now say these articles were never the basis of their focus on Mesoamerica, a claim that ignores the intellectual history of the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory.
Actually, I'm fine with the revisionist history; i.e., if the intellectuals want to say the articles had nothing to do with their theory, then let's correct the traditional history and move on. I've asked the Church History department to do just that. We'll see what happens. As of today, there are still notes in the Joseph Smith Papers that reflect the traditional, and false, assumption that Joseph wrote the anonymous articles and was enthusiastic about Mesoamerica.
There is a lingering intellectual legacy tied to these articles. Even if everyone agrees that Joseph didn't write or edit them, the articles fed the narrative that Joseph didn't know much about the Book of Mormon and merely speculated about its setting.
LDS intellectuals taught this theory to the world at the Library of Congress in 2005, which I discussed here.
This theory that Joseph was an ignorant speculator who misled the Church about the New York Cumorah and changed his mind later in life is one of the rationales for rejecting Letter VII, as I discussed here.
It's the basis for rejecting Oliver Cowdery, who was the ordained Assistant President of the Church when he wrote Letter VII.
It's the basis for rejecting David Whitmer's testimony, which he repeated multiple times, about the messenger taking the Harmony plates to Cumorah.
It's also the rationale for rejecting what Brigham Young taught in 1877 when he was reorganizing the Priesthood and introducing temple ordinances and doing everything he could to put the Church on the right course before he died. I discussed that here.
IOW, correcting the false assumption that Joseph wrote the anonymous 1842 Times and Seasons articles must include a rejection of the equally false assumption that Joseph was a confused speculator who misled the Church.
2. The archaeology question. LDS intellectuals have persuaded themselves that the New York hill (which they don't even like to refer to as Cumorah) is a "clean hill," meaning devoid of artifacts that corroborate the New York setting. I've addressed this in several posts here, here, here, and here.
I don't think archaeology, by itself, will lead to consensus. Archaeology is more an interpretive art than a hard science, and it is the subjectivity of the interpretation that leads to disagreement. This is especially true where the expectations themselves vary so dramatically.
I think it's more important to support and sustain the prophets and apostles, because faith precedes the miracle and we receive no witness until after the trial of our faith.
Nevertheless, there is abundant archaeological evidence that supports what Joseph and Oliver taught about the Hill Cumorah.
I'll discuss it in more detail once we all agree to first support and sustain the prophets and apostles.
For now, I'll just mention that one of the problems we've seen involves our expectations and misreading of the text. To reach a consensus about archaeology, we must first reach a consensus about our expectations.
Failing that, we must be willing to adjust our expectations in light of the archaeological evidence.
For example, were two million Jaredites killed at Cumorah, or less than 10,000?
I think the number is less than 10,000, which obviously would leave a different archaeological record than 2 million dead.
I addressed that here: http://www.lettervii.com/2017/08/question-about-numbers-at-cumorah.html.
The intellectuals have also concluded that Cumorah cannot be in New York because of weather, lack of volcanoes, etc. These are all red herrings, created out of whole cloth as confirmation bias to support the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory. They are, in a word, ridiculous, especially when framed as reasons to reject the prophets and apostles.
As I said at the beginning, I realize this is a long post--but there's a lot more I could say. Email me if you have questions.
*Here are some of the details:
1. Joseph learned the name Cumorah from Moroni before he ever obtained the plates.
2. Joseph and Oliver learned about Cumorah when they translated the text.
3. David Whitmer learned about Cumorah in 1829 when, on the road from Harmony to Fayette, he met the divine messenger who was taking the Harmony plates back to Cumorah. (The messenger returned these plates to Cumorah because Joseph and Oliver had translated all of them, except the sealed portion. The Lord had directed them to translate the plates of Nephi (D&C 10), which Joseph did not yet have. He didn't get those until he arrived in Fayette.)
4. Joseph and Oliver and others visited Mormon's depository in the Hill Cumorah, as Brigham Young and others explained.
5. David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery both said the plates were no longer in Cumorah. David said they were "not far from there," however, which suggests that Joseph, Oliver and others moved the depository to another location. (I discuss all this in detail elsewhere.)