Who Originated the Heartland Model?

The Heartland Model is a proposed Book of Mormon geography that spreads the scripture's New World setting over much of the eastern United States. In antiquity, this region was settled by mound building cultures that existed during, and in other cases, centuries after Book of Mormon times. Proponents have tried to defend the Heartland Model with a mix of legitimate, dubious, and specious relics from the region. Key sites in the Heartland Model correlate with places of significance in Church history. This article identifies the one most responsible for the creation of the Heartland Model, describes how the geography came to be, and why it was ultimately abandoned by its creator.

I knew that Rod Meldrum was not the father of the Heartland Model, but only recently did I learn of the lesser role that Wayne May played in the birth of the touted geography. Certainly, Wayne nurtured the Heartland Model. He tried to revise and adjust it. He ardently promotes it, and has prospered by it. But is it essentially his brain child, or someone else's Caliban?

On the spine of Volume One of the THIS LAND series, you will find the name Edwin G. Goble followed by Wayne N. May. Subsequent volumes of the series carry only Wayne's name as author, or editor.

Who is Ed Goble? Ed is an LDS Scholar perhaps best appreciated online for his unrelenting defense of the Book of Abraham. I recently copied Ed on an email to a valued colleague. In the email I suggested that Wayne May should be credited with the Heartland Model. This brought a loaded response from Ed. Ed filled us in on little known details about the origin of the would be Book of Mormon geography. "I claim not that I am the sole inventor", said Ed up front, "but sort of the originator of the basics of the one [early version of the Heartland Model] that sort of "made sense" ... a model that sort of "worked" ... Wayne May didn't particularly care about the geography that much [at the time] ... and I didn't care about his ... tablets [bogus Michigan relics etc.]"

To understand how the nascent Heartland Model came together, or rather how Ed pieced it together, we need to review its key geographic elements:


"I always believed Cumorah was in New York", Ed began, "but couldn't make the rest work in the early days."

When Ed mentions "Cumorah" he means the Book of Mormon "hill Cumorah". Ed accepts the tradition that the large drumlin hill from which Joseph Smith retrieved the golden plates containing the Book of Mormon, is one and the same as "the hill Cumorah" of scripture. LDS Scripture does not actually say this. Scripture does clearly point out that "the hill Cumorah" is in "the land Cumorah". (Mormon 6:4-5, see also 1837 Edition) We are given the general whereabouts of the land Cumorah in LDS Scripture. (LDS Doctrine and Covenant 128:20)

The Hill Cumorah tradition goes back to Joseph Smith's associate Oliver Cowdery. The strongest supporting evidence for the tradition comes from the fact that Oliver's identification of the "hill Cumorah" was included in Joseph Smith's history. (J.S. Papers, History 1834-1836, pg. 86)

Second hand accounts quote both Joseph and the angel Moroni as referring to the same large drumlin hill in Manchester as "hill of Cumorah", meaning hill of the Book of Mormon land Cumorah. But whether the traditional Hill Cumorah is one and the same as "the hill Cumorah" of scripture, or just one of several hills in the land Cumorah, is not known for certain. In any event, the traditional Hill Cumorah is the most authoritatively established site on the Heartland setting map.

LDS Scripture, signed by Joseph Smith, definitely places "Cumorah" (the land) near the Finger Lakes of western New York. The Smith family log home, where the angel Moroni appeared to the young prophet, and declared "the fulfilment of the prophets, the book to be revealed" is in Cumorah, the Book of Mormon land. (LDS Doctrine and Covenant 128:20)


When Ed says that apart from Cumorah, he "couldn't make the rest work ...", the nature of his geographic problem needs to be appreciated. Ed was trying to satisfy more than the best sources. He was relying on more than LDS Scripture and verifiable statements by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Ed was trying to reconcile statements published by other prominent Church leaders; e.g. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, edited by Bruce R. McConkie [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954-1956], 3:239. Church authorities unjustifiably attributed to Joseph Smith a geographic tidbit that Ed became obsessed with. "Yes, I was taken with Manti in Missouri because of the reports from Church authorities", says Ed.  So Manti in MO became the next essential piece of the nascent Heartland geography. Conflict surrounding the Missouri Manti is also at the heart of why Ed finally rejected his geographic creation - but we'll get to that shortly.

The Book of Mormon Manti is a land and city situated in the southern highlands of Nephite territory, near the head (source) of the river Sidon. (Alma 16:6; 22:27, 29; 43:22) The great earth and timber city Zarahemla was less than a day's march northward, downhill from Manti. (Alma 56:13-15, 25; 58:13, 23-27) Manti was not far from the Book of Mormon's east and west seas. (Alma 53:8, 22; 56:13-14, 31; 58:13-14; 59:5-8; 51:25-26)

The earliest available source of the Manti in MO claim comes from an 1838 journal entry by Samuel D. Tyler. Brother Tyler did not specifically attribute the Manti in MO idea to Joseph Smith. This leap was made by Church authorities years later.

Adding to the confusion, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith taught that Book of Mormon civilization "was principally ... in the south [Central and South America] and not in the region now comprising the United States." (DS 3:73-74) His statement contradicts the placing of Book of Mormon Manti on U. S. soil. But LDS Scripture challenges Elder Smith's generalization. (1 Nephi 13:30, 2 Nephi 10:10-14, 1 Nephi 13:13, 15, 20, Ether 2:7-12, LDS Doctrine and Covenant 10:49-51; consider also 3 Nephi 20;22, Ether 13:6, LDS Doctrine and Covenant 28:9; 42:9, 35, 62; 45:64-71; 84:2-3) By tradition, Elder Smith apparently accepted a far-flung Hemispheric Model similar to the one that Elder Orson Pratt inserted in the footnotes of the 1879 Edition of the Book of Mormon. Elder Smith stated, "It is generally understood that they [family of Lehi] landed in South America ..." (DS 3:73-74)


"There was a guy named Duane Erickson that "sort of" affiliated with Wayne May ... This guy placed Cumorah in New York and Zarahemla in Iowa across from Nauvoo (i.e. from a misreading of D&C 125) ... his Sidon was the Mississippi." Ed continued, "... the Heartland Theory only preserved a few ideas from him. I realized that Erickson's idea of Zarahemla in Iowa worked with Manti in Missouri, and that the Mississippi seemed like a good candidate [for Sidon]." Try crossing that on foot!

In hind sight, Ed is clear on the fact that LDS Doctrine and Covenant 125:3 does not actually say that Zarahemla of the Book of Mormon was in Iowa. It was because the Iowa Zarahemla seemed to fit with Manti in MO, that Ed "was pretty convinced back then about that."


Ed recounts the evolution of the early Heartland Model's  narrow neck of land idea: "I couldn't figure out a good candidate for the Narrow Neck of Land. I settled on the idea of a coastal corridor along Lake Erie for my "narrow neck" following the "coastal corridor" hypothesis of David Hauk (who is a Mesoamericanist that rejects the isthmus [Tehuantepec] theory). So this early theory was sort of starting to work".

Ed was open to adapting Mesoamerican setting ideas to his model to endemically prop up its plausibility.

But the Heartland narrow neck idea continued to evolve. Ed goes on to explain: "There was this guy named Duane Aston and another guy named Delbert Curtis. Both believed that the neck of land was Niagara. I still didn't buy that at that early period. But when I found from Indian place name dictionaries that Niagara in Iroquoian means "neck" or "point of land cut in two", this won me over." (Ed cites Rydjord, John Stewart, 1968, Indian Place-Names, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, pp. 267-268; George R., 1970, American Place Names, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 327)

Ed's findings on the possible meanings of Niagara could be significant! Had he let go of the unscriptural sites, and kept things closer to Cumorah, his model may have turned out much more compact, like one of Phyllis Olive's early models, with, perhaps, at least one important distinction: The Book of Mormon "narrow neck" is probably distinct from "the narrow pass"; both of which situate near the Desolation-Bountiful line.

It makes abundant sense that this important geographic line, the Desolation-Bountiful line, follows the Onondaga Limestone Escarpment in western NY. As described in scripture, the land Bountiful situates "up", south of the escarpment, while the land of Desolation resides at lower elevation on the north. (Alma 22:30-31) Modern roads run parallel to the linear limestone formation.

Ed (or someone else) could have realized that reference to "a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land" (Ether 10:20) precisely describes the site now occupied by modern Buffalo NY (formerly New Amsterdam). A study of the book of Ether shows that it is consistent to place Cumorah eastward from Moron (near the land of Desolation), and therefore eastward from both the narrow neck of land (Niagara Isthmus, Ether 10:20; 7:6; 9:3; 14:6, 26; 15:8-11), and the narrow pass (Batavia Moraine, Alma 50:35). Apply Israelite coordinates (East is towards sunrise) and it becomes apparent that "curious" (meaning "ingenious", חשב) Hagoth launched his "exceedingly large ship" into Lake Erie, "the west sea, by the narrow neck of land which led into the land northward". (Alma 63:5) He built his great ship "on the borders of the land Bountiful, by the land Desolation ..." Today, two battleships and a refitted WWII submarine are moored near this site - near the mouth of Sidon (Buffalo River).

U.S.S. Croaker Large catamaran in the mouth of Buffalo River

Large catamaran launching out into Lake Erie

A large catamaran launches out into the "west sea" (Lake Erie) from the mouth of "Sidon" (Buffalo River) - by the divided Niagara Isthmus. (Alma 63:5)

So west in the Near Cumorah setting, is both seaward and in the direction of the setting sun, just as on the Mediterranean coast of Israel. Take into account ancient Lake Wainfleet, now reduced to wetlands on the Niagara Isthmus, and we may consider that the narrow neck of land needn't have included the entire divided isthmus; but could have been a smaller land bridge on the Onondaga Escarpment, just across Niagara from Buffalo. Unlike the narrow pass (Batavia Moraine, Mormon 2:29), the divided land bridge called "the narrow neck" is never said to have led into the land southward, only into the land northward. (Alma 63:5)

Southward "up", Northward "down"

Divided Niagara Isthmus, southward rise in elevation, northward flowing rivers, and northern plains

An Eclectic Geography Emerges

Ed describes piecing together his creation: "so, I combined my Manti in Missouri obsession with the Niagara neck and the Mississippi Sidon, with Erickson's idea of Zarahemla in Iowa - all together in one theory. This was the nascent Heartland Theory. This finally materialized in about 1997 or 1998 - when I finally got all of this together in one."

Early Heartland Model

Above is a Map of the nascent Heartland Model found on page 75 of Volume One of the THIS LAND series. The book carries a 2002 copyright by Edwin G. Goble and Wayne N. May.

Why isn't the Book of Mormon land of Desolation marked on the map? Desolation should be north of Bountiful, which is north of Zarahemla, which is north of Manti, which is north of the land of Nephi.

Ed explains: "My idea of Desolation was the heartland of an ancient culture dating to the time of the Jaredites that was up in Ontario. At that time, I was heavily influenced by Mesoamericanist thinking, focusing on "Spheres of Influence" of ancient cultures, as well as "heartland" areas of cultures. So, I focused in on archaeological heartland areas even though I didn't have good evidence of cities. ..."

Notice that Ed placed the Jaredite land of Moron (4), which according to scripture was "near the  land which is called Desolation by the Nephites" (Ether 7:6), north in Canada. But wait, didn't Moron, the seat of Jaredite power and inheritance, reside in a land that prophetically would become "free ... from all other nations under heaven"? (Ether 2:12) That's not Canada. Jaredites no doubt migrated into Cananda, but their inheritance and seat of power was near Desolation, on what is now United States soil. (Alma 46:17)

Ed's model tries to accommodate the existence of scriptural seas on the west and east of Bountiful (also flanking more southern lands) by applying a Mesoamericanist hand wave argument - skew the directions! This argument is foisted by BYU luminaries like John L. Sorenson (feigned mainstream in Mormon subculture). "I was influenced by the Mesoamericanist thinking on the Nephite North thing" says Ed, "it was convenient to explain skewed directions." So Ed has on the map, all the Great Lakes combined as the "Sea West" (2). From "the waters of Ripliancum" (Lake Iroquois/Ontario, Ether 15:8, 1879 LDS Edition of the Book of Mormon) to Hiawatha's "Gitche Gumee" (Lake Superior), the Heartland Model considers all these the "Sea West" (2, 2, 2, 2, 2). Actually, "west sea" is a proper noun in translated scripture. (Zechariah 14:8) The relative expression "sea west" simply means sea on the west - whatever its name (e.g. Helaman 3:8, Joshua 18:14, Numbers 34:11).

Noting the general location of the land Bountiful (11), one is left to wonder where exactly is the Desolation - Bountiful line that ran "from the east to the west sea"? According to Alma 22:32 this line could be crossed on foot in only 1.5 days (periods of daylight).

Where is the "narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west", same as the "straight course" of the land of Nephi, which formed "the line between … the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi", running from "the east sea to the west [sea]" - where is it on the Heartland Model map? (Alma 22:27; 50:8-11)

The "narrow strip of wilderness" is not the same as the more northern "small neck of land", or "narrow pass". (Alma 22:32; 50:34) Don't confuse the two. The authors of the October 1, 1842 ZARAHEMLA piece (published in the Times and Seasons newspaper) thought, at the time, that the Panamanian Isthmus of Darien could be "the small neck of land" with "Zarahemla" in Central America. These brethren eventually came to understand that "the small neck of land" was north, not south of Zarahemla. They eventually changed their opinion about Zarahemla's location. They chose South America (1879 Edition). Why didn't this constitute a betrayal of Joseph's opinion? Because Joseph didn't write the unsigned T&S ZARAHEMLA piece, positing Zarahemla in Central America. The ZARAHEMLA piece is very likely the work of John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff. (See Roper, Matthew, "Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations", FARMS Review, 2004, wherein Roper attributed the unsigned ZARAHEMLA piece to Apostle John Taylor, Acting Editor of the T&S) It should be noted that John Taylor's published articles on Stephens' and Catherwood's discoveries in Central America, never mention the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. They mention the "Isthmus of Darien" at Panama.

If Ed's Heartland geography were correct, then Limhi's search party sent out from the land of Nephi (8) on a mission to find Zarahemla (5), got lost in the wilderness, ended up in a land of "many waters" in the vicinity of Cumorah (3), where the Jaredites were destroyed, and there thought they had come upon "the land of Zarahemla" (5). (Mosiah 8:7-8; 21:25-26) Did you get that? The search party would have had to think they were in Iowa when presumably they had arrived in upstate NY, if the Heartland Model were true. If you think the previous scenario is absurd, imagine Zarahemla, and the land of Nephi being in Central or South America. By the way, the "land of many waters" associated with Cumorah and the hill Ramah, is referenced as "southward" from the "waters of Ripliancum" (Lake Iroquois/Ontario, Ether 15:8-13, 1879 Edition). But by Ed's Mesoamericanist styled screwed directions, we are required to think of this as "eastward" from "Sea West" (2).

Though Ed's model certainly stretches distances described in the American scripture to the point of incredulity, and though he reorients cardinal directions by about 45 degrees,  it needs to be stressed that the Heartland setting's exaggeration, and twisted compass is the result of trying to accommodate unscriptural sites. All things considered, Ed did the best possible job he could to try and reconcile things scriptural, with an unscriptural geographic tradition (Manti in MO). Ed gave it his best shot! In so doing, Ed wasn't just thinking two dimensionally. He was actually trying to place the land of Nephi at higher elevation than the land of Zarahemla. Scripture consistently describes this difference in elevation using the prepositions "up" and "down". That is why Ed placed the land of Nephi (8) in the Ozarks. But according to scripture, Manti was also at higher elevation than Zarahemla. On the ground "Manti" in MO (Huntsville, 804 ft) is not noticeably higher than Zarahemla IA (~670 ft), considering the hundred mile or so distance between them.

DESOLATION in IL Spells Disaster!

Look again at where the lands of Manti (6), Zarahemla (5), and Bountiful (11) situate on the Heartland Model map above. Now imagine the heartburn of trying to fit the northern Book of Mormon land of Desolation in the prairies of Illinois!

"In 2002 I became kind of aware of the statement in the Levi Hancock journal stating that the land of desolation extended up into Illinois, which started to cause cracks in my faith in the nascent heartland theory. I tried with all my might to explain away the statement, trying to say that it didn't mean what it said. Finally, I admitted to myself that this was not intellectually honest, and I finally publically retracted the heartland theory in about 2004 ..."

Ed experienced what happens when one relies on sources other than the best, to layout the Book of Mormon's covenant lands. Ed was right to recognize Levi Hancock's secondhand (perhaps third-hand) account of what Joseph Smith supposedly said to Sylvester Smith, as more authoritative than the Manti in MO claim. But Levi Hancock's journal entry is not authoritative enough. Sure, its more authoritative than Manti in MO, because Brother Hancock actually alleges that Joseph Smith said such and such, to so and so about the land of desolation that king Onedages (sounds like Onondaga, not a Book of Mormon character) ruled over. The problem is, we can't confirm firsthand what Joseph actually said to Sylvester Smith, and in what context. The earliest available source of the Manti in MO claim doesn't mention Joseph Smith. Both these sources (Samuel Tyler, Levi Hancock) should be set aside when it comes to placing the principal lands of the Book of Mormon.

It should be noted here, that Ed continues to see Levi Hancock's journal entry as an authoritative statement. He interprets the journal entry as proof that Joseph Smith taught that the prairies of Illinois coincide with the Book of Mormon land of Desolation.

Over the years, a lot of Church authorities have claimed that Joseph Smith said things that are not corroborated by the Prophet's signature or handwriting. Take for example First Presidency member George Q. Cannon who was influenced (1887, 1888) by Frederick G. Williams', "The course that Lehi traveled ..." published under "LEHI'S TRAVELS. - Revelation to Joseph the Seer" in Franklin D. Richard’s and James A. Little’s compendium (1882). President Cannon publicly claimed that Joseph Smith told "some individual or individuals" (not specified) that the Magdalena River of Columbia is the river Sidon. ("Topics of the Times", Juvenile Instructor, July 15, 1887, Vol. 22, No. 14, p. 221)

By 1895 Elder B. H. Roberts had discounted the claims published by Richards and Little; as did Gospel Doctrine Committee Chairman and Scientist Frederick J. Pack in 1938. (Choice Above All Other Lands, "Unsigned Articles and a Popular Book" - Chapter 3; "Brethren Speculate")

Like the Hancock journal entry about "desolation", President Cannon’s allegation about "Sidon" is not authoritative enough to base Book of Mormon geography on. These statements are churchly sand.

Here's another example: History of the Church 5:44, 25 June, Saturday, 1842 has Joseph Smith apparently making a statement about John Lloyd Stephens’ discoveries in Central America, and yet when you actually turn to the original journal entry in the J.S. Papers, there is no mention of Stephens or his discoveries. HC 5:44 is a well meaning redaction by somebody who had a geographic agenda. I could go on with more examples of uncorroborated statements - more disappointments.

There have been numerous contradictory statements made by Church general authorities on the subject of so called "Book of Mormon geography". Many of these brethren attribute a piece of geographic information to Joseph Smith: Lehi's landing a little south of the Isthmus of Panama, or else Lehi's landing on the coast of temperate Chile, Zarahemla in tropical Guatemala, or Zarahemla in South America. It turns out that none of these have verifiable connections to Joseph Smith. Its a bewildering mass of confusion! I have therefore learned to do what objective non-Mormon scholars would do. I reject all these second and third-hand accounts in favor of LDS Scripture, and things we know for sure Joseph Smith wrote, or dictated, e.g. LDS Doctrine and Covenant 128:20. Do this and the Book of Mormon's authentic literary setting comes into view. That's right, the boyhood countryside of Joseph Smith, set in the mound builder Archaic, and Woodland periods of the past.

But wait, don't we have to base the covenant land setting of the Book of Mormon on archaeologically established high population centers - like Mormon mesoamericanists advise - like Wayne May and Rod Meldrum are also inclined to advocate? Sounds scholarly, but no! In fact, they have the archaeological ass backwards. You don't start by looking for archaeologically supported large population centers to attach Book of Mormon place names to. You start with studying the scriptural text. Let it tell you where the literary setting is.

Hebrew scripture makes claims about large Israelite populations for which there is still no archaeological proof. (Numbers 1:45-47, 2 Samuel 24:9, 1 Chronicles 21:5) This doesn’t mean we should play far-flung geographic shell games with say, the location of Hebron. Archaeological proof of Jewish communities in Poland doesn't mean that Hebron was there. If we were to let propagandist and businessman "archaeology" steer the promised land setting we might convince ourselves that Solomon’s Temple is in northern Syria because of the remarkably similar architecture of the Ain Dara temple. We might want to conclude that the Semitic Syrians were the Hebrews. As things stand, there is presently no archaeological proof that Solomon existed, or that he built a "magnifical" temple on Mount Moriah. (2 Chronicles 3:1) But the Bible gives us a fairly clear idea of where Mount Moriah is. The little Promised Land of Israel jives really well with the Bible's geographic descriptions of it.

Similarly, we know the locale of the land Cumorah. (LDS Doctrine and Covenant 128:20) We start there, and like solving a math problem, we deduce where Riplancum has to be, then the west sea... Its really that simple. The "west sea" cannot be thousands, or even many hundreds of miles away from scriptural Cumorah. The coast of the "west sea" has to be long enough to accommodate the lands of Bountiful, Zarahemla and Nephi, with an inland rise in elevation from north to south. Internal distances, based on scriptural travel times can then be overlaid starting from the coast. Corresponding geological and hydrological features should become evident. If the distance across the northern Bountiful line is 1.5 days on foot, and the distance across the southern Bountiful line is on the order of a day (Helaman 4:7), and if the line between that land of Zarahemla and Nephi is about a day's, or a night's march away from Bountiful, then we shouldn't be surprised if the "line between … the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi", running from "the east sea to the west [sea]" could be crossed on foot in 2 to 3 days. (Alma 22:27; 50:8-11) We are talking about relatively small coastal lands hugging the "west sea" (Lake Erie); not broad tracts across the American heartland, stretching from the Atlantic and the Gulf, to the Great Lakes.

In the Book of Mormon, a day's march in the wilderness is described as "a considerable distance". (Alma 56:36-38) Several hundred miles on foot therefore qualifies as "an exceedingly great distance" north into Ontario Canada, with its many lakes and rivers. (Helaman 3:4) Keep in mind that to ancients in the land of Israel, Babylon (now modern Iraq) was considered "a far country". (Isaiah 39:3) The geographic situation is similar in Book of Mormon America.

So how come, if a day's march is "a considerable distance", the distance along the Desolation - Bountiful line is esteemed as "only the distance of a day and a half's journey ... from the east to the west sea ..."? The answer may be that the use of the word "only" in Alma 22:32 is in tacit comparison to the two or three days that it could have taken to travel along the "narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west ..." (Alma 22:27)

Once we have the authentic literarily setting properly outlined, then we can legitimately put shovels to the ground and do real archaeology. If no impressive archaeological evidence of the Book of Mormon turns up right away - tough beans! At least we have the covenant land setting right.

A Frankensteinian Monster!

Ed sums up: "So there you go. A history of the early days of the Heartland Theory, and how it has become a frankensteinian monster that keeps going despite my retraction of it."

Proto Heart Land Model

Above: The mutating Heartland Model found on pages 50-51 of Volume Two of Wayne N. May's THIS LAND series. Note the placement of the lands of Nephi, Bountiful and Desolation.


Proposed Heart Land Setting Bountiful Line

Above: A more recent version of the Heartland Model - still evolving. Here we have, in color, an ostensible attempt to rectify the mesoamericanist styled screwed directions. The attempt, however, creates problems elsewhere, in addition to some problems that the model already had. Why is Bountiful to the east of Zarahemla? Where is the sea west of Zarahemla and Nephi? Where is the narrow strip of wilderness running from sea to sea, between the lands of Nephi and Zarahemla? Where is the Desolation - Bountiful line? Is it between Lake Erie and Lake Michigan? If so, is anyone willing to try and walk that in a day and a half? (Alma 22:32) Let Heartlanders demonstrate that their Desolation - Bountiful line is reasonable. Walk the Walk!

In the end, Ed's creation and denunciation of the Heartland Model, may serve a higher purpose. In the hands of Rod Meldrum, Wayne May and others, the model has become a kind of serpent on a pole, leading thousands of scripturally unstudied people to look closer to Cumorah, away from more false geographic models. Of course, as in ancient times, when the people were found making too much of the manmade thing, it was destroyed! (2 Kings 18:4-5)

Can a Land "called the land of desolation" in Illinois, be Reconciled Without Far-flung Geography?

The Levi Hancock Zion's Camp record includes a description of events "after entering the wide prairies ... On the way to the Illinois River". Near this time Joseph Smith dictated a letter to his wife Emma (4 June 1834). The letter bears the Prophet's name. it was doubtless reviewed by Joseph before it was sent. The letter is more confidently attributable to Joseph Smith, than Levi Hancock's account of what Joseph supposedly said to Sylvester Smith about an Illinois land "called the land of desolation".

Regarding the progress of Zion’s camp, the letter to Emma reads:

"The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest men and sincere men, wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting [p. 57] occasionaly the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity …"

In his letter, Joseph not only identifies Nephites as mound builders, he positively identifies certain plains (prairies of Illinois) as "the plains of the Nephites".

Question: If the prairies of Illinois coincide with the Book of Mormon land of Desolation, why didn’t Joseph refer to them as the plains of the Jaredites? The Jaredite land of Desolation and plains of "Heshlon" and "Agosh" in the "north country" were in the vicinity of large bodies of water. (Alma 22:30-32; 50:29, Ether 1:1; 13:28-29; 14:11-16, 26; 15:8)

The Nephite plains specifically mentioned in the Book of Mormon, were near at least one eastern body of water or "sea". (Alma 50:13-15; 51:26; 52:20-22; 62:18-19) The "plains of the Nephites" identified by Joseph in his letter to Emma, do not match the Nephite plains describe in the Book of Mormon. It is possible that the Illinois prairies came to be inhabited by the Nephites at a time when their nation spread northward and southward into other lands, from their relatively small principal lands near the coast of "the west sea". The "west sea" was not far from bodies of water on the east, one of which was called "the east sea".

In 1832, W. W. Phelps published his opinion about the "extensive prairies, where the Jaredites filled the measure of their time." Brother Phelps associated the "extensive plains", the Great Plains of America, with "the land of Desolation, as it is called in the book of Mormon", and wrote of both the Jaredites and the Nephites inhabiting "this choice land". ("THE FAR WEST", EVENING AND MORNING STAR, Vol. I, September, 1832. No. 4, pg. 37)

Did Joseph think W. W. Phelps was correct in identifying the Great Plains as the Jaredite land of Desolation, or did Joseph obtain a different understanding by revelation? Is there another explanation for why the Illinois prairies might be "called the land of desolation", one which also explains why Joseph did not refer to the Illinois prairies as the plains of the Jaredites, in his letter to Emma?

Its possible that Brother Phelps' published opinion equating Desolation with the Great Plains, was a subject of discussion, perhaps even debate between Joseph and Sylvester Smith, during their trek through Illinois. Assuming Brother Hancock was present when Joseph addressed Sylvester Smith, we have the following account, and secondhand statement attributed to Joseph Smith:

"In the morning many went to see the big mound about a mile below the crossing. I did not go on it but saw some bones that were brought back with a broken arrow. They were laid down by our camp. Joseph Smith addressing himself to Sylvester Smith and said, “This is what I told you and now I want to tell you that you may know what I meant. This land was called the land of desolation …” These words he said as the camp was moving off the mounds as near as I could learn he had told them something about the mound ..." 

In the Book of Mormon, a land was called "desolate" because of "the greatness of the destruction of the people who had before inhabited the land …" (Helaman 3:6, 2 Nephi 16:11) The Nephites called a northern Jaredite land "Desolation" because "it came into the land which had been peopled and been destroyed …" (Alma 22:30)  The Jaredites had been warned that "their bones should become as heaps of earth upon the face of the land ..." (Ether 11:6) Similarly, the land of Ammonihah, where many of the cult of Nehor were destroyed in Nephite times, was called "Desolation of Nehors". (Alma 16:11) The dead of that land were heaped up in mounds upon the earth. The Nephites avoided the putrid area "for many years".

At their civilization's bitter end, "the Nephites who had escaped into the country southward, were hunted by the Lamanites, until they were all destroyed." (Mormon 8:2) The "south countries" of the Book of Mormon are likely one and the same as "the south countries" so named by the Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants? These are lands southward of Amherst Ohio, that is, southward from the "west sea" (Lake Erie). Much of the heartland of the United States then corresponds to the Book of Mormon "south county" or "south countries". (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 75:8, 17 Mormon 6:15, 8:2) Though the wide open heartland of America is not where the principal lands of the Book of Mormon reside, certain Nephites may have made a last stand there.

The 1834 Levi Hancock's account details that the Illinois plains of the Nephites were "called the land of desolation and Onedages was the King and a good man was he." The account continues to quote Joseph Smith as saying, "There in that mound did he bury his dead and did not dig holes as the people do now, but they brought their dirt and covered them until you see they have raised it to be about one hundred feet high. The last man buried was Zelf or Telf. [?צלף, or masculine version of זלעפה, meaning "Raging Heat"] He was a white Lamanite who fought with the people of Onedagus for freedom ..." Brother Hancock adds, "These words he [the Prophet Joseph] said as the camp was moving off the mounds as near as I could learn he had told them something about the mound and got them to go and see it for themselves. I then remembered what he had said a few days before while passing many mounds on our way …"

It’s important to recognize that King Onedages is not a Book of Mormon character. It is possible that he reigned after the destruction of the Nephite nation; and that the "plains of the Nephites" that Onendages came to preside over were "called the land of desolation" not because Jaredites were destroyed there, but because of the desolation of the Nephites in the land.

The historical writings of Mariano Veytia touch on the long southward migration of ancient northern American people into Central America. Veytia's account mentions the people's propensity for naming newly settled cities after cities from which they had departed. (Mariano Vetia, Ancient America Rediscovered, First English Translation of Veytia's Historia Antigua de Mexico, Translated by Ronda Cunningham, compiled by Donald W. Hemingway and David W. Hemingway, Bonneville Books, 2000, p. 50)

Joseph Smith placed the arrival of the Jaredites in the "lake country of America" (region of Lake Ontario) and apparently agreed with Josiah Priest about the eventual, southward migration of ancient peoples from the Great Lakes region into Mexico and Central America. See "Traits of the Mosiac History, Found among the Azteca Nations", Joseph Smith's editorial (signed "ED") on a chapter from Josiah Priest's American Antiquities, published in the June 15, 1842 edition of the Times and Seasons newspaper.

If the land "called the land of desolation" in the Illinois prairies, is not the first land of Desolation, but bears a name appropriately repeated by later people, should we not also call into question the primacy of an ancient Manti in Missouri, and an ancient Zarahemla in Iowa, especially since these alleged ancient sites are not clearly established by scripture?

Sure, Joseph could have identified "the plains of the Nephites" in Illinois as a land "called the land of desolation". But this does not mean that far-flung geographies like W. W. Phelps’, or Patriarch McBride’s are required to account for the placement of this "land of desolation" in what is now the United States heartland. The Illinois Nephite "land of desolation" needn't be the Jaredite "land of Desolation". The Jaredite land of Desolation, north of Bountiful, was near the "west sea", and other "large bodies of water" in "the land which was northward". (Alma 22:31-32; 50:29, 33-34)

Ed Goble's response to this article


Vincent Coon וינסנט כון   Copyright 2019


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