Official LDS Essay on Book of Mormon Geography, Annotated
The following is the official essay entitled "Book of Mormon Geography" with our annotations and commentary. This essay was released by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on their website in January 2019 to help explain why so many early church leaders taught that the Book of Mormon took place in America (and why the Hill Cumorah in New York is the same exact hill as the Book of Mormon's Hill Cumorah), but to distance from that teaching today due to advances in archaeology, genetics, and history that show the Book of Mormon could not have taken place at the Hill Cumorah. In the below essay, all text in blue is the unedited text from the church essay, with our commentary in black. The essay below can be found on the church's website here.
This essay is one of the 'short' Gospel Topics essays as the church has begun releasing shorter essays than the initial larger ones released in 2013-2014, but still introduces members to a lot of issues that have been difficult for apologists and members to reconcile with including findings in archeology, DNA, and migrations since Joseph Smith's lifetime.
We will put a lot of quotes in here that show how the church clearly taught that the Hill Cumorah in New York was the same one as in the Book of Mormon as well as the Lamanites being the Native Americans who just happened to match the descriptions of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon with darker skin, and how the church only began shifting this belief as technology and advances in science made it impossible to believe that the Book of Mormon events could have taken place in America.
As President George Albert Smith said, “If a faith will not bear to be investigated; if its preachers and professors are afraid to have it examined, their foundation must be very weak.” (Journal of Discourses, Volume 14, Page 216)
Before we begin, I want to note that the church has changed the essay since the publication of it in January 2019. We are using the original text for our response, but you can see the new version on their website from the links above. The main difference is the removal of a quote from Anthony W. Ivins, which is very important to understanding the problem of this essay. With that said, on to the essay:
Book of Mormon Geography
The Church takes no position on the specific geographic location of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas. Church members are asked not to teach theories about Book of Mormon geography in Church settings but to focus instead on the Book of Mormon’s teachings and testimony of Jesus Christ and His gospel.
This is technically true in the sense that the church takes no position on the geographic location of the Book of Mormon events today, but this is absolutely not the case for the church's teachings until recently. There are two areas that we are going to highlight as we look at this essay, and those are the location of the Hill Cumorah and the idea that "Indians" (Native Americans) are the descendants of Lamanites.
Before we jump too deep into these two areas, I hope anyone who has not read our annotated Gospel Topics essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon would do so. That annotated essay gives a ton of detailed information of the problem that DNA has created for the Book of Mormon's truth claims, and is vital to understanding the issues that will be discussed here. While our annotated DNA essay is much longer, it really does explain why it is impossible to separate the Book of Mormon story away from America given both the Book of Mormon itself along with revelations that Joseph Smith claimed were from God.
Back to the essay:
The Book of Mormon includes a history of an ancient people who migrated from the Near East to the Americas. This history contains information about the places they lived, including descriptions of landforms, natural features, and the distances and cardinal directions between important points. The internal consistency of these descriptions is one of the striking features of the Book of Mormon.
Since the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, members and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have expressed numerous opinions about the specific locations of the events discussed in the book. Some believe that the history depicted in the Book of Mormon occurred in North America, while others believe that it occurred in Central America or South America. Although Church members continue to discuss such theories today, the Church takes no position on the geography of the Book of Mormon except that the events it describes took place in the Americas.
As mentioned above, the two areas that are of vital importance to understanding how the church taught Book of Mormon geography are the location of Hill Cumorah as well as the issue of who the Lamanites are. This feels like a good time to look at how he church taught the Hill Cumorah that Joseph Smith claimed to receive the gold plates for the Book of Mormon is the same Hill Cumorah where hundreds of thousands were killed in Book of Mormon battles. But before we get to what Joseph Smith said about the Hill Cumorah, let's look at what the Book of Mormon states:
"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
This verse alone makes clear the the records were buried in the same Hill Cumorah that the Book of Mormon battles took place in, which makes sense given the absurdity of calling the hill Joseph Smith claimed to get the plates from Cumorah if they were not one and the same.
And in the canonized Joseph Smith history, Joseph Smith makes clear that the records are about this continent (i.e. North America):
"He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants" (Joseph Smith History 1:34)
But even if you don't believe that the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith history are taking a position here, please read this excerpt of 'Letter VII" from Oliver Cowdery to WW Phelps that was giving an explanation of Joseph Smith's history in getting the plates (emphasis added):
"I must now give you some description of the place where, and the manner in which these records were deposited.
About four miles from Palmyra, you pass a large hill on the east side of the road. Why I say large, is because it is as large perhaps, as any in that country. To a person acquainted with this road, a description would be unnecessary, as it is the largest and rises the highest of any on that rout.... The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.
By turning to the 529th and 530th pages of the book of Mormon you will read Mormon’s account of the last great struggle of his people, as they were encamped round this hill Cumorah. (it is printed Camorah, which is an error) In this vally fell the remaining strength and pride of a once powerful people, the Nephites—once so highly favored of the Lord, but at that time in darkness, doomed to suffer extermination by the hand of their barbarous and uncivilized brethren. From the top of this hill, Mormon, with a few others, after the battle, gazed with horror upon the mangled remains of those who, the day before, were filled with anxiety, hope or doubt. A few had fled to the South, who were hunted down by the victorious party, and all who would not deny the Saviour and his religion, were put to death. Mormon himself, according to the record of his son Moroni, was also slain.
...Alma, who lived before the coming of the Messiah, prophesies this. He, however, by divine appointment, abridged from those records, in his own style and language, a short account of the more important and prominent items, from the days of Lehi to his own time, after which he deposited, as he says, on the 529th page, all the records in this same hill, Cumorah and after gave his small record to his son Moroni, who, as appears from the same, finished, after witnessing the extinction of his people as a nation.
...the land was left to the possession of the red men, who were without inteligence, only in the affairs of their wars; and having no records, only preserving their history by tradition from father to son, lost the account of their true origin, and wandered from river to river, from hill to hill, from mountain to mountain, and from sea to sea, till the land was again peopled, in a measure, by a rude, wild, revengful, warlike and barbarous race.— Such are our indians.
This hill, by the Jaredites, was called Ramah: by it, or around it pitched the famous army of Coriantumr their tents. Coriantumr was the last king of the Jaredites The opposing army were to the west, and in this same vally, and near by, from day to day, did that mighty race spill their blood, in wrath, contending, as it were, brother against brother, and father, against son. In this same spot, in full view from the top of this same hill, one may gaze with astonishment upon the ground which was twice covered with the dead and dying of our fellow men. Here may be seen where once sunk to nought the pride and strength of two mighty nations; and here [p. 87] may be contemplated, in solitude, while nothing but the faithful record of Mormon and Moroni is now extant to inform us of the fact, scenes of misery and distress" (Letter VII)
Keep in mind that Oliver Cowdery was working closely with Joseph at this time to provide a history to the Missouri members of the church, and would have been his scribe to answer these questions from WW Phelps. While some church apologists want to absolve Joseph Smith of these thoughts because they were not in his own handwriting, keep in mind that at this point Joseph Smith wrote almost nothing by his own hand - he used scribes almost exclusively.
This problem does not end here, however. There are so many quotes about the Hill Cumorah from early leaders, but I will highlight a few here that I believe will give a clear picture as to the early church's teachings on the Hill Cumorah:
"A Dictionary of the Book of Mormon" by Elder George Reynolds and copyrighted by Joseph F Smith (1910): "Cumorah, Hill. One of the most noted places in ancient American history was the land in which was situated the hill known to the Jaredites as Ramah and to the Nephites as Cumorah [Mormon 6-8]. In its vicinity two great races were exterminated; for it was there that the last battles were fought in the history of both people. There also the sacred records of the Nephites found their final resting place...About fifty-five years after (say in A. D. 376) Mormon,...removed all [records] that had been placed in his care and afterwards hid up in the hill Cumorah [Mormon 6-8] all that had been entrusted to him by the hands of the Lord, save the few plates which he gave to his son Moroni. Moroni afterwards concealed the treasures [the BoM gold plates] committed to his keeping in the same hill [Mormon 6-8], where they remained until they were, by heaven’s permission, exhumed and translated by the Prophet Joseph Smith. This hill [Mormon 6-8] is situated about three or four miles from Palmyra, in the State of New York." (Dictionary Entry via Wikipedia)
Elder B H Roberts, October 1927 General Conference: "Only three weeks ago, about now, I had the pleasure of standing upon the summit of the hill Cumorah in company with President Grant. Being there upon the height...I could not refrain from recalling the time when Moroni stood upon the crown of that hill with the evidence of the ruins of the civilization of his people about him. And this warning, written in the book of Ether, let me say, in closing, comes from the prophet of God who was also the historian of the great Jaredite nation, by abridging and translating their history into the Nephite language. This warning comes, then, from the historian of one civilization that had perished about the hill Cumorah; it came also from the same man who was a witness of the destruction of the civilization of his own people at the same place." (General Conference, October 1927)
President Marion G. Romney, October 1975 General Conference: "I will give you a lesson today that the Lord has taken great pains to bring to us... In the western part of the state of New York near Palmyra is a prominent hill known as the “hill Cumorah.” (Mormon 6:6.) On July twenty-fifth of this year, as I stood on the crest of that hill...my mind reverted to the events which occurred in that vicinity some twenty-five centuries ago—events which brought to an end the great Jaredite nation. Thus perished at the foot of Cumorah the remnant of the once mighty Jaredite nation... This second civilization to which I refer, the Nephites...came to an end for the same reason, at the same place, and in the same manner as did the Jaredites" (General Conference, October 1975)
Elder Mark E. Peterson, 1984: "Moroni placed the stone box containing the sacred records in a hole in the ground on the side of the Hill Cumorah, as it was known in those days. About 1400 years went by, and the records lay safely in the Hill Cumorah. Then the time came for them to be brought forth. Moroni was sent back to earth as an angel from heaven to visit a young man named Joseph Smith, Jr., who lived on a farm with his family in western New York, not far from the Hill Cumorah." (The Friend, May 1984)
Letter from the office of the First Presidency, 1990: "The Church has long maintained, as attested to by references in the writings of General Authorities, that the Hill Cumorah in western New York state is the same as referenced in the Book of Mormon." (Image of the 1990 letter)
Jesus The Christ Manual, 2006: Joseph then went to the locality specified by the angel, on the side of a hill called in the record Cumorah, and immediately identified the spot that had been shown him in vision... This Moroni, who now came as a resurrected being, was the last survivor of the Nephite nation; he had completed the record, and then shortly before his death had hidden away the same in the hill Cumorah, whence it was brought forth through his instrumentality and delivered to...Joseph Smith, September 22, 1827. That record,...is now accessible...as the Book of Mormon.(h) (Chapter 41, p 758-779)
Russell M. Nelson, 2016 Missionary Seminar: "An angel did deliver a written text to the Prophet Joseph Smith. The angel Moroni told Joseph that “there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of [the American] continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants" (2016 Seminar for New Mission Presidents)
There are even more quotes from early leaders as well as church manuals, but the reality is that the Book of Mormon taught that the Hill Cumorah is the same one that Joseph Smith claimed to retrieve plates from, Joseph Smith's history as recorded by Oliver Cowdery leaves no confusion as to where the Book of Mormon took place, and leaders within the church since that time have taught the same. If we look beyond just statements referencing the Hill Cumorah, here are a few that are from Joseph Smith himself that makes this point irrefutable:
Joseph Smith, 1833 Letter to the Editor: "The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western tribes of Indians; having been found through the ministration of an holy Angel, translated into our own language by the gift and power of God, after having been hid up in the earth for the last fourteen hundred years, containing the word of God which was delivered unto them. By it, we learn, that our western tribes of Indians, are descendants from that Joseph that was sold in Egypt, and that the land of America is a promised land unto them, and unto it, all the tribes of Israel will come, with as many of the gentiles as shall comply with the requisitions of the new covenant." (Scan of Letter via BYU)
Joseph Smith, Wentworth Letter: "I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country [America] and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people, was [also] made known unto me; I was also told where were deposited some plates on which were engraven an abridgment of the records of the ancient prophets that had existed on this continent... We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the Tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites of the descendants of Joseph." (Wentworth Letter)
The only reason that the church now backs away from this teaching is that the evidence is too overwhelming that no such events took place in America. There are no bodies in Hill Cumorah (remember that hundreds of thousands are said to have died there), no weapons, no linguistic evidence, and we now know that DNA proves that Native Americans did not come from Jerusalem, but from Asia. In other words, the reason the church "does not take a position" is because their original position has been proven false by advances in archaeology, linguists, DNA, and history. If there was any evidence that the church could use to back up Joseph Smith's statements about the history of Hill Cumorah, it would not only prove the Book of Mormon as a historical record, but would be front and center at every church building, conference, and temple.
One final note before we move on to the next part of the essay: the church owns Hill Cumorah and has had plenty of time to study and scan the hill for ancient artifacts and remains. There is nothing to be found - no stone box that held the 'gold plates,' no abundance of weaponry from these unprecedented battles, and no bodies from among the hundreds of thousands that died. There is a short BYU Studies article that highlights that no evidence whatsoever that these events took place around Hill Cumorah can be found, which is why the church has allowed apologists to claim there's actually a second Hill Cumorah somewhere far, far away.
And now back to the essay:
The Prophet Joseph Smith himself accepted what he felt was evidence of Book of Mormon civilizations in both North America and Central America. While traveling with Zion’s Camp in 1834, Joseph wrote to his wife Emma that they were “wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls and their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity.” (Letter to Emma Smith, June 4, 1834) In 1842, the Church newspaper Times and Seasons published articles under Joseph Smith’s editorship that identified the ruins of ancient native civilizations in Mexico and Central America as further evidence of the Book of Mormon’s historicity. (Times and Seasons, June 15, 1842, 818–20; see also “American Antiquities,” Times and Seasons, July 15, 1842, 858–60. Although it is not clear how involved Joseph Smith was in writing these editorials, he never refuted them.)
This paragraph really helps to illustrate the second big reason that we know the Book of Mormon is placed in America: the claims by Joseph Smith (and God via revelation) that the Native Americans are the Lamanites. This idea stems from a belief in Joseph Smith's time that Native Americans had a dark skin because they must have been cursed, and I highly encourage anyone who has never seen Dan Vogel's video on the 'Mound Builder Myth' to give them a watch as it details this idea and how it relates to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
The reason that Joseph Smith was talking about the history of the Book of Mormon as he traveled to Missouri was because he truly believed the events took place in America. And what wouldn't he? The Book of Mormon states it by noting that the plates would be buried in the same Hill Cumorah where the battles took place, and Joseph Smith claimed revelations from God to preach to the "Lamanites" who just happened to be Native Americans with dark skin.
During Zion's Camp in 1834, they came upon a mound with the appearance of three stone alters. According to Heber C Kimball, upon showing the bones to Joseph Smith, "was made known to Joseph that he had been an officer who fell in battle, in the last destruction among the Lamanites, and his name was Zelph." (Heber C Kimball's journal)
Zelph's story is another huge indication that the Book of Mormon took place in America. According to Kimball, Joseph Smith was shown Zelph's story "in a vision." This follows with Joseph Smith seeing Book of Mormon stories in vision and telling his family of them even before he claimed to have the gold plates. From Lucy Mack Smith's history:
"During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined: he would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent; their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, and their buildings, with every particular; he would describe their <mode of> warfare, as also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them." (Joseph Smith Papers, Lucy Mack Smith's History)
This is a pattern we see throughout Joseph Smith's life, where he claims to have visions both of Book of Mormon history as well as revelations including visitations from all sorts of people from God and Jesus to Elias and Elijah in the Kirtland temple (It needs to be noted that Elias and Elijah are the same person. Elias is the Greek translation and Elijah is Hebrew, but it would appear that Joseph Smith did not realize this during this claimed vision). If we take Joseph Smith at face value, then the Book of Mormon has to be in America because of the visions that were shown exclusively to him, but if we pull back from that because the evidence shows the Book of Mormon did not happen in America, then all of Joseph's visions must be questioned as well.
We highlight this problem in other areas, but sometimes when you apply apologetics to one area of Mormon history, you open up issues elsewhere. A great example of this is the "tight vs loose translation theories," where defenders of the church will claim Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon with a "tight translation" when looking at the quotes from those around him, but that he also used a "loose translation" to explain problems such as using King James Bible language, anachronisms, Deutero-Isaiah, and other issues where the plates could not have possibly contained ideas or terms that are in the Book of Mormon.
Getting back to Zelph, John Taylor recorded this account from Joseph Smith of the event in the Times and Season along with the History of Joseph Smith.
"I discovered that the person whose skeleton was before us, was a white Lamanite, a large thick set man, and a man of God. He was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Omandagus, who was known from the hill Cumorah, or Eastern sea, to the Rocky Mountains. His name was Zelph. The curse was taken from him, or at least in part." (Times and Seasons, Vol 6, page 1076)
This again makes clear that Joseph Smith believed the Hill Cumorah was the same in New York as the Book of Mormon because he had received many visions of this history previously. It is also interesting and telling that the church neglected to give this context to the Zelph story in the essay, as it would explicitly contradict their overall claim that the church takes no position on Book of Mormon geography. Last, it also shows that Joseph Smith was told by God that Lamanites are the ancestors of the Native Americans (who could have their skin turn white again if they become righteous), which is a problem due to advancements in DNA studies as we have discussed above.
We don't go into as many details about the Lamanite problem here as we cover that in the following pages that I hope will be of help for those studying these issues:
Gospel Topics Essay - DNA and the Book of Mormon (annotated): As referenced earlier, this is our annotated version of the official church essay that covers the problem that DNA is causing for Book of Mormon truth claims regarding who the Lamanites are.
Come Follow Me, the Curse of Dark Skin: We wrote about the 2020 Come Follow Me manual that again affirmed that the curse of dark skin is a literal darkening of the skin as taught by the church until recently as social pressures have made that untenable.
But to illustrate this point, I want to provide just a few quotes to make clear that Joseph Smith believed the Book of Mormon was in America due to the text of the book itself along with direct revelation from God:
-D&C 54:8 And thus you shall take your journey into the regions westward, unto the land of Missouri, unto the borders of the Lamanites.
-D&C 28:14 And thou shalt assist to settle all these things, according to the covenants of the church, before thou shalt take thy journey among the Lamanites.
-D&C 19:27 Which is my word to the Gentile, that soon it may go to the Jew, of whom the Lamanites are a remnant, that they may believe the gospel, and look not for a Messiah to come who has already come.
-D&C 30:6 ...for I have given unto him power to build up my church among the Lamanites.
-D&C 28:9 ...and no man knoweth where the city of Zion shall be built, but it shall be given hereafter. Behold, I say unto you that it shall be on the borders by the Lamanites.
-D&C 32:2 ...he shall go with my servants, Oliver Cowdery and Peter Whitmer, Jun., into the wilderness among the Lamanites.
-D&C 3:18 And this testimony shall come to the knowledge of the Lamanites, and the Lemuelites, and the Ishmaelites, who dwindle in unbelief because of the iniquity of their fathers…
-D&C 28:8 And now, behold, I say unto you that you shall go unto the Lamanites and preach my gospel unto them
And this is why the church can not escape the problem: Even if you ignore the Book of Mormon stating the the Hill Cumorah is the same one that the plates were buried at (in New York), the revelations from God make perfectly clear that the descendants of the Lamanites are the Native Americans in the United States.
But because of DNA we know that the Lamanites that are described in these revelations from God have nothing to do with Native Americans, which is why the church no longer takes a position on who the Lamanites are or where the Book of Mormon took place.
In other words, the Book of Mormon tells us that the Book of Mormon took place in America, Joseph Smith's history and retellings tell us that the Book of Mormon took place in America, and God (via Joseph Smith) tells us through revelation that the Book of Mormon took place in America. If that's not enough, here are a few brief quotes from church leaders throughout the years confirming that the church taught and believed that Native Americans are the descendants of Lamanites, in America.
Harold B. Lee, 1959: "from the writings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and of other inspired men, it seems all are in agreement that the followers of Lehi came to the western shores of South America....I believe we are (today) not far from the place where the history of the people of Lehi commenced in western America" (Report for Andes Mission)
Mark E. Peterson, 1962: "As Latter-day Saints we have always believed that the Polynesians are descendants of Lehi and blood relatives of the American Indians, despite the contrary theories of other men." (Church News Article, 1992)
Spencer W. Kimball, 1971: "With pride I tell those who come to my office that a Lamanite is a descendant of one Lehi who left Jerusalem some 600 years before Christ and with his family crossed the mighty deep and landed in America. And Lehi and his family became the ancestors of all of the Indian and Mestizo tribes in North and South and Central America and in the islands of the sea, for in the middle of their history there were those who left America in ships of their making and went to the islands of the sea." (Ensign, July 1971)
Howard Hunter, 1984: "It has been the position of the Church that Polynesians are related to the American Indians as descendants of Father Lehi" (“Islands of the Pacific,” Beneficial Life Insurance Company Convention)
So why is the church no longer teaching that the Book of Mormon took place in America? As we've already covered above, there is simply no evidence to support that any of these events could have taken place in America. It is impossible to believe that hundreds of thousands of people could die in battles and leave not a single trace of weapons, bones, or buildings. Add to that the DNA problems, the linguistic problems, and issues with migration studies and there is simply nowhere that apologists can place the Book of Mormon in a historical sense without exposing their truth claims in other areas.
One last note about the church using the following statement in the essay: "In 1842, the Church newspaper Times and Seasons published articles under Joseph Smith’s editorship that identified the ruins of ancient native civilizations in Mexico and Central America as further evidence of the Book of Mormon’s historicity."
As you'll see when you look at the footnote (we included that above), those articles were not claimed to be written by Joseph Smith nor is there any indication that he referenced or endorsed the articles or ideas in any way. That the church is including this as evidence that Joseph Smith was teaching that the Book of Mormon might have taken place in Central America is misleading at best, which is why their own footnote has to admit that "it is not clear how involved Joseph Smith was in writing these editorials."
Back to the essay:
Anthony W. Ivins, a Counselor in the First Presidency, stated: “There has never been anything yet set forth that definitely settles that question [of Book of Mormon geography]. So the Church says we are just waiting until we discover the truth.”3 The Church urges local leaders and members not to advocate theories of Book of Mormon geography in official Church settings.
This statement was quietly removed from the essay, and for good reason. In this quote, Ivins was speaking about the city of Zarahemla and not Hill Cumorah. Take a look at this quote in its full context:
"There is a great deal of talk about the geography of the Book of Mormon. Where was the land of Zarahemla? Where was the City of Zarahemla? and other geographic matters. It does not make any difference to us. There has never been anything yet set forth that definitely settles that question. So the Church says we are just waiting until we discover the truth. All kinds of theories have been advanced. I have talked with at least half a dozen men that have found the very place where the City of Zarahemla stood, and notwithstanding the fact that they profess to be Book of Mormon students, they vary a thousand miles apart in the places they have located. We do not offer any definite solution."
While this might seem like nitpicking, the problem is compounded when you look at Ivins' statement from just a year earlier about Hill Cumorah:
"And the more extended discussion of this subject by Elder B. H. Roberts which was published in The Deseret News of March 3 definitely established the following facts: That the hill Cumorah, and the hill Ramah are identical. That it was around this hill that the armies of both the Jaredites and Nephites fought their great last battles. That it was in this hill that Mormon deposited all of the sacred records which had been entrusted to his care by Ammaron, except the abridgment which he had made from the plates of Nephi, which were delivered into the hands of his son, Moroni. We know positively that it was in this hill that Moroni deposited the abridgment made by his father, and his own abridgment of the record of the Jaredites, and that it was from this hill that Joseph Smith obtained possession of them.... All of these incidents to which I have referred [the battles at Hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon], my brethren and sisters, are very closely associated with this particular spot in the state of New York." (Improvement Era, June 1928)
Clearly Ivins believed that Hill Cumorah was the same one in New York as in the Book of Mormon, and the quote used in the essay was clearly taken out of context to give plausibility to the idea that the church did not teach that the Hill Cumorah in New York was the same as in the Book of Mormon.
One other reason for the Ivins quote about where some of the Book of Mormon cities are is that in early 1920s the first advancements were made in blood typing. This led to the first real evidence that Native Americans are not from Israel, which of course poses a massive problem for the Book of Mormon along with Joseph Smith's revelations. That explains this part of the talk from the essay that was not mentioned in the quote above: "And so if discoveries are made which suggest differences in race origins, it can very easily be accounted for, and reasonably, for we do believe that other people came to this continent."
In other words, the talk outlined by the essay is seeking to establish the idea that there were other populations in America when Lehi's group arrived. We cover this apologetic argument in our annotated DNA and the Book of Mormon essay, but it simply does not hold up to both the Book of Mormon or early church teachings as well. Regardless, we wanted to note the context of the talk by Ivins and why the need arose to not place Book of Mormon events in New York as the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith taught.
The church has since replaced this paragraph with these two paragraphs:
"The Church does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas. President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, reminded members that “the Book of Mormon is not a textbook on topography. Speculation on the geography of the Book of Mormon may mislead instead of enlighten; such a study can be a distraction from its divine purpose.”
Individuals may have their own opinions regarding Book of Mormon geography and other such matters about which the Lord has not spoken. However, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles urge leaders and members not to advocate those personal theories in any setting or manner that would imply either prophetic or Church support for those theories. All parties should strive to avoid contention on these matters."
Put another way, the church was forced to remove the one quote that they thought helped their cause and replace it with a stronger statement for members to not discuss where the Book of Mormon took place in any official capacity. As we've noted with other problematic topics, this is a position that only comes out of necessity when the history as taught does not hold up to the evidence.
On to the final paragraph:
Speaking of the book’s history and geography, President Russell M. Nelson taught: “Interesting as these matters may be, study of the Book of Mormon is most rewarding when one focuses on its primary purpose—to testify of Jesus Christ. By comparison, all other issues are incidental.”
This final paragraph follows the pattern of most of the troubling gospel topics essays, which is to say that members should not focus on the evidence or history, but to rely on prayers and spiritual confirmation. But the problem here is that when you really dig into spiritual confirmations, you can see that they are not reliable for discovering truth.
The power of a spiritual witness is a difficult one to question as they are personal experiences, which is why the church leans so heavily on it to keep members from questioning their truth claims. Unfortunately, it is also one that every church uses, and I refer you to this YouTube video which shows how other churches use the very same spiritual confirmations, including a polygamous splinter group from the LDS church. It is a powerful video to show how spiritual witnesses happen across different religions and movements, and a great illustration that spiritual witnesses of truth are received by people with completely different worldviews and beliefs, which would be impossible if they are truly being received by an unchanging and consistent God.
There are many other areas where you could look closer at the Book of Mormon geography claims, but the goal of the essay is to assure members that the church does not take a position on where Book of Mormon events took place. As we highlight above, that is true today, but only out of necessity. This is the same approach the church has taken on other issues where science and advances in history has forced them to abandon truth claims. To name just a few:
-When advances in DNA showed that Native Americans came from Asia and not Jerusalem as the Book of Mormon claims, the church changed the introduction to the Book of Mormon from the Lamanites being the "principal ancestors" of Native Americans to "among the ancestors." That is a crucial change which we cover extensively in our DNA and the Book of Mormon annotated gospel topics essay
-The church defended the authenticity of Joseph Smith's translation of the Kinderhook Plates until science proved in the 1980s that they were indeed a hoax. This creates two problems for the church's truth claims: First, that Joseph Smith partially translated plates that were created as a hoax to trick Joseph, which means he could not tell the difference between real ancient languages and fake ones. Second, the church 's leaders defended them as real for almost 140 years until science proved they were fake, which is a problem when we have prophets, seers, and revelators that are supposed to have the power of discernment. We cover the timeline of this issue on our Kinderhook Plates summary.
-And perhaps the biggest one of all is the Book of Abraham. Joseph Smith claimed this was a direct translation of the writings of Abraham "written by his hand, upon papyrus." Unfortunately the Egyptian language was cracked soon after and once the source material was discovered in a museum, scholars could tell that Joseph Smith's translation was completely wrong. In addition, the papyrus could be dated and was produced two thousand years after the time Abraham would have lived. This led the church to abandon the idea of a direct translation, and to move towards apologetic arguments such as the "lost scroll theory" and the "catalyst theory." We cover all of these arguments as well as the church's changes in truth claims in our annotated Book of Abraham gospel topis essay.
In the case of Book of Mormon geography, it is clear that the church did take a position. Joseph Smith himself described the Book of Mormon as having taken place in America, and church leaders testified of the spiritual witness they received being up on Hill Cumorah and envisioning the battles that took place there.
This is an uncomfortable problem for the church, because today the idea of the Book of Mormon having taken place in America is simply untenable. The church owns the Hill Cumorah property and they know there is no evidence of any battles have taken place, and as such are allowing their historians and apologists to battle over the geography of the Book of Mormon while refusing to take a stand out of fear they will be proven wrong as Joseph Smith and other early leaders have been.
One final note to this essay is one that can be asked of the other essays as well: If the church is truly led by God and has fifteen "ordained prophets, seers, and revelators," how is it that no one is able to get an answer from God on these questions that are so consequential to the history of the church? Joseph Smith claimed to receive visions of the Book of Mormon stories so vivid that he was able to share them with his family before he even claimed to receive the plates, and yet the current leaders of the church are unable to get answers to basic questions such as Book of Mormon geography, what happened with the Book of Abraham, or who the Lamanites are.
We recently wrote about how the church refuses to take a position on a number of issues, and once you study the evidence and history the reason becomes clear: there are no good answers to the problems with truth claims in Mormonism, and any position the church takes opens up more issues than it solves.
Thank you for reading this annotated essay and I hope that you will continue to research this issue and that you will be willing to research from both LDS and non-LDS sources to get the full picture. For me personally this essay is not at the top of the list of problems with church truth claims, but it is important to see how advances in science, archaeology, and history has forced the church to abandon key truth claims such as where the Book of Mormon took place or who the Lamanites are.
We've mentioned on many other posts how difficult it is to take in this new information, and we understand how painful it is to process. Please email us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more resources to learn about these issues or if you are looking for people that you can safely talk to as you continue your faith journey.