Book of Mormon Covenant Lands According to the Best Sources


"Heartland as Hinterland" - Nice Try!


A recent Meridian Magazine article titled “Heartland as Hinterland: A Look at Book of Mormon Geography” wants the core of Nephite civilization to be in Central America with outlying settlements in North America's temperate heartland. The writer of the article, Dr. Mark Wright, can’t call his geographic compromise a new look at Book of Mormon geography, because it’s not, and he knows it. Mesoamerican setting devotees have argued similar things before.

Contrary to Dr. Wright's reheated hypothesis, American History and Literature scholars have long known that the authentic core setting for the Book of Mormon is in Joseph Smith’s own country - Mound Builder territory of the United States. (Robert Silverberg, The Mound Builders, “…and the mound-builders vanished from the earth”; Roger G. Kennedy, Hidden Cities – The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization; Thomas S. Garlinghouse, “Revisiting the Mound-builder Controversy”, History Today; Sept. 2001, Vol. 51, Issue 9., pg. 38, Ephraim G. Squier, Aboriginal Monuments of the State of New York, Smithsonian Contribution to Knowledge, Vol. 2, 1849)

The so called “Book of Mormon geography” controversy Brother Wright refers to in the opening paragraph of his article, is a problem unique to Mormons. This endemic controversy hasn’t kept mainstream researchers from getting at the historical and literary facts. We are talking about the kind of objective and informed scholars who place the literary setting for King Arthur’s Camelot in Britain of old (not at a castle ruin in Spain or Italy), and the biblical court of King David at bronze age Jebus (Jerusalem, 1 Chronicles 11:4), though modern archaeology has not substantiated many of the Bible’s population claims. Take a look at the head counts in 2 Samuel 24:9 and 1 Chronicles 21:5

The Bible definitely lays out the locale of its relatively small Promised Land, whether archaeology appears to support the scriptural narrative or not. The historicity of the Bible can be treated as a separate matter from the subject of its literary settings. The same is true for the Book of Mormon. It’s just that a lot of Mormons either don’t know it yet, or don‘t want to separate the Book of Mormon from the appearance of archaeological support. But scripture is its own guide to covenant lands, and the Book of Mormon deserves to be classed as sacred scripture as much as the book of Daniel or the book of Job, or the Bible in general - independent of historical proof. 

It is partly because they are conflicted, that a lot of Mormons have trouble posing their geography problem correctly. Many start, not with where LDS scripture plainly places the Book of Mormon land Cumorah (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20), but instead focus on exotic ruins and large ancient population centers, thousands of miles away in the Americas! Mormons are driven by a kind of pseudo archaeological lust to places far removed from where the Book of Mormon came forth. (Mormon 8:23-26)

Some clever Mormons seek to stress in the minds of a larger church audience, the fact that there really were large numbers of infrastructure building peoples long ago in say, Central America! Ergo Mesoamerica is promoted as the hub from which Nephite civilization spread to distant hinterlands; that is, from a core civilization in tropical jungles to wide ranging temperate North America. We therefore get favored with reassuring statements like this one:

“… I believe the best available evidence places the core narrative of the Book of Mormon squarely in Mesoamerica … The preponderance of evidence always has and always will favor a Mesoamerican setting, to the point where for me to even talk about it here feels like beating a dead horse.” (Dr. Mark Alan Wright, “Heartland as Hinterland: A Look at Book of Mormon Geography”, Meridian Magazine, 15 August, 2013)

Whoa, has Dr. Wright discovered the remains of a pre-Columbian horse in Central America? From his confident statement, one would think he’s at least found a lost Nephite manuscript that mentions things like monkeys, palm trees and hewn stone pyramids? To me, Dr. Wright’s core setting sounds more like John Lloyd Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America (1841), than the Book of Mormon (1830 )! It’s as if Dr. Mark has another text in mind!

The unspecified “preponderance of evidence” is likely code for large infrastructure building populations? But hold those Mayan horses! The fact that there were a lot of people in Mesoamerica doesn’t prove that the core of Nephite civilization was centered there. Ask a mainstream anthropologist or at least a respected historian; there is actually an enormous demographical problem with trying to fit the Book of Mormon narrative in Mesoamerica. A large population matching the Nephites is blatantly absent from the archaeological record in that region! (Hampton Sides, This Is Not the Place, published in Americana – Dispatches from the New Frontier, Anchor Books – A division of Random House, Inc, New York)

The problem with Wright’s “preponderance of evidence” is that it doesn’t take in simple things (to Israelites) like the agricultural ordinances of the Law of Moses, which faithful Nephites kept in full. (2 Nephi 5:10) These seasonal ordinances require a setting in the temperate Northern Hemisphere. Someone studying the King James Bible and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews or the Tribes of Israel in America (1825, pp. 149-150) could glean that much. You can’t keep the seasonal ordinances of the Law “in all things” in tropical America, however attractive the sites are to tourists!

Why would the God of Israel lead faithful Israelites with priesthood to a place where they couldn’t keep all the Law as commanded; especially after killing a wicked man to obtain the written Torah? (1 Nephi 4:15-17) It’s not just a matter of getting the timing of sacred ordinances right, it’s a matter of having the right seasons, produce and animals. The very idea of a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon is Torah oblivious. But try getting the goy minded to appreciate that! It goes to show that you can be a college educated Church member and still think like a Gentile.

Dr. Wright is all too quick to cite apostate John E. Page (previous member of the Twelve Apostles under Joseph Smith) in an attempt to support his thesis of a “northward migration” from Central America. What Dr. Wright doesn’t tell the reader is that more than one contemporary of Joseph Smith, after becoming enamored with John Lloyd Stephens’ bestseller, fancied not just some migrations to the north, but the whole Nephite nation traveling thousands of miles in mass from Central America to Cumorah, western New York! (Diary of Charles Lowell Walker. Vol. 3, pp.524-526; see also Choice Above All Other Lands, “An Instance of Mormon Apocrypha”, Appendix)

There was no question in the minds of early Latter-day Saints where it was the fair Nephites fell. The general location of the land Cumorah had been revealed! (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 10:49-51; 128:20) As for the location of the Nephite capital land Zarahemla, you got different answers depending on which Apostle you asked. Opinions differed on the order of thousands of miles. Which begs the question: How reconcilable is Dr. Wright’s opening statement that “The Church, of course, has no official position on where the Book of Mormon took place” with his unspecified preponderance of evidence” which “always has and always will favor a Mesoamerican setting”?

Wright decries the exaggerated “hemispheric” model but could say more to inform his readers that this gross geography once was the accepted Church paradigm. Zarahemla in South American (not Mesoamerica) was suggested in the footnotes of the 1879 LDS edition of the Book of Mormon. Reinstated Apostle Orson Pratt outlived dissenting brethren, and succeeded in getting his speculative geographic views approved for a time.

The “Book of Mormon geography” mess, that the Church finds herself in today, is largely of her members own making. It’s what happens when you treat the Book of Mormon lightly” (God’s word not mine!)  and put the attractions of other things (e.g. wonderful ruins described in Stephens’ bestseller) ahead of plain scriptural detail. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 84:54-59)

A real Church history kicker is that at the time the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon was approved, John Taylor was President of the Quorum of the Twelve with active Apostle Wilford Woodruff! These brethren knew who contributed the unsigned “ZARAHEMLA” piece published in the Times and Seasons newspaper back in October 1842. Both brethren shouldered the printing business at the time. The Prophet was in seclusion over the Boggs incident in the fall of 1842, and Orson Pratt had just been excommunicated.

The sensational “ZARAHEMLA” article alleged certain ruins in Central America to be those of the Book of Mormon Zarahemla, or some other Book of Mormon city; even though Stephens’ himself concluded that the ruins were in fact, relatively recent. Joseph had read both volumes of Stephens’ book and thought it “most correct”! Those who wrote the “Zarahemla” piece ignored Stephens’ conclusions about the age of the stone ruins and attributed them to the Nephites. If the unsigned “ZARAHEMLA” piece was really the authoritative work of the Prophet Joseph Smith (as some want to believe), why then did President Taylor and Elder Woodruff later allow the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon to feature Orson Pratt’s geography - placing Zarahemla in South America?

Now days it seems wise for the Church to take an ostensibly neutral position on “Book of Mormon geography”, but certain people know that the topic never really was just about “geography”. It’s really about covenant lands - lands which the LORD God wants Gentiles, not just his ancient covenant people, to be able to identify by way of scripture. (Ether 2:9-12, 3 Nephi 29:1)

Yes, the statements of various brethren on the subject of  “Book of Mormon geography” are a mass of confusion! Wright admits that it is possible to play “General Authority Chess” and pit “the words of one early saint against another”. The solution is simple: Don’t rely on these!

Level headed American History and Literature scholars agree that when it comes to determining the authentic literary setting for the Book of Mormon, LDS Scripture and verifiable statements by Joseph Smith trump all other Mormon sources. Wright, like so many other Mormons, continues the disservice by not submitting to this sound hierarchy. In fact, as will soon be shown, he avoids citing scripture that gets in his way.

Zion – the whole of America

It’s true that Joseph in the Nauvoo period redefined the boundaries of the American Zion as, “the whole of America … from north to south” with the “mountain of the Lord … in the center of the Lands.” (April Conference, 1844, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg. 362) Joseph had earlier announced “the western boundaries of the state of Missouri … the very spot which was to be the central place …of an “holy city,” which was to be called Zion…” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 79-80)

It’s true that some of the brethren understood Joseph to mean that the land of Zion is the whole of North and South American. So what!

This doesn’t change the fact that the Book of Mormon patriarch Lehi’s American inheritance was a land in the temperate Northern Hemisphere where the seasonal ordinances of the Law of Moses could be kept “in all things”. (2 Nephi 5:10)

Lehi’s company wasn’t just guided across Oceans to the American Promised Land; they were guided across “the large waters into the promised land”. They were guided so far north and inland that “driven snow” was an expression that later generation in the land could relate to. (1 Nephi 11:8; 19:1-3)  

This was to be a land of liberty to future Gentiles, where no king would rule over them - “upon the land”, that is. (2 Nephi 10:10-14) The setting rules out Mexico and Central America which has supported the feet of Emperor Iturbide, Dictator Santa Anna, Emperor Maximilian, and the progressive tyrant Francisco Morazan, to name a few.

The Pilgrims and the American War of Independence were seen in prophetic vision upon the land of Lehi’s inheritance. (1 Nephi 13:14-20) It would be a choice land whereon future Gentiles, delivered from captivity, would prosper “above all other nations”. (1 Nephi 13:30)

The land Cumorah

This brings us to the fact that scripture places the land Cumorah “in a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains”. (Mormon 6:4-5)  Cumorah is squarely in the vicinity of the Finger Lakes. This is western New York wine country, with its numerous rivers and picturesque water falls. No, scripture doesn’t say that the hill where young Joseph recovered the Book of Mormon plates is the “hill Cumorah”. Such is an early Mormon tradition. But scripture does indicate that the Smith family home, where the messenger announced “the fulfillment of the prophets – the book to be revealed” was in “Cumorah” – the Book of Mormon land Cumorah. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20)

This passage of LDS scripture must really gall Dr. Wright; so he avoids citing it in his article. Instead he asserts, “…there are no first-hand accounts that indicate Joseph Smith ever referred to the hill in New York by the name Cumorah.”  Wright doesn’t tell the reader about second-hand accounts in which both Joseph and the messenger refer to the hill as “hill of Cumorah”, meaning a hill of the Book of Mormon land Cumorah. (Choice Above All Other Lands, Ch. 2)

Brother Wright’s statement is misleading! From scripture alone we can’t say for sure that the drumlin hill where Moroni deposited the abridged plates is “the hill Cumorah”, but we can say with scriptural accuracy, that this hill is in the land “Cumorah”. An instance of the title “land Camorah” is found in the original 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon - changed in recent years to read “land of Cumorah”. (Mormon 6:5)

The epistle to the Church indicating the general location of Cumorah is a firsthand statement signed “JOSEPH SMITH”! Joseph’s previous epistle (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 127:10) tells the saints to regard his next epistle as “the word of the Lord”. But Brother Wright doesn’t like it, so he doesn’t mention it. In fact one wonders if Dr. Wright regards Joseph’s (the Lord’s) placement of Cumorah as uninspired. In summary, Dr. Wright remarks:

“I have attempted to respectfully show that the Heartland Hypothesis can account for Joseph’s inspired statements while keeping the core narrative of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica.” 

Whether he knows it or not, Dr. Wright chooses the company of 20th century members of the Reorganized LDS Church (now called “Community of Christ”) who started the notion of a Mexican / Mesoamerican Cumorah. Being a member of the RLDS church, Louis Hills did not accept Joseph Smith’s teaching on baptism for the dead as binding upon the membership of his church. Baptism for the dead is the primary topic of LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128. It was easy for Hills to reject LDS scripture with its “Cumorah”, and start a new tradition. LDS, like Dr. Wright, would later catch and spread the idea like mumps. (Choice Above All Other Lands, Ch. 1)

Ancient migrations

A sizeable part of Dr. Wright’s article is spent informing the reader about migrations from Mesoamerica to temperate North America. Indeed, there were Mayan migrations from Central America to the Gulf Coast, and even as far north as the American heartland. Dr Wright wants these to be migrations mentioned in the Book of Mormon, but they are not! Many of the Mayan migrations occurred in the time of the Mississippian culture – which followed the time period of the Nephites. Brother Wright wants the heartland of America to be the distant lands northward relative to a make-believe Central American Nephite core civilization.

Joseph Smith actually advocated a migration in the opposite direction!

The Book of Mormon “land northward” was limited by large bodies of water and many rivers. (Helaman 3:3-8, 3 Nephi 4:23; 7:12) It was not as open on the north as Mexico is. According to Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon peoples migrated from “the lake country of America” to more distant southern countries. (Joseph Smith’s editorial on a chapter from Josiah Priest’s American Antiquities, “Traits of the Mosaic History Found Among the Azteca Nations”, Times and Seasons, June 15, 1842, Vol. 3, No. 16, pp. 818-820)

It’s important to realize that there are two seasons in tropical Mesoamerica. The seasons in Book of Mormon country are several and temperate. (E.g. Alma 46:40) It’s possible that Lehi’s covenant land of liberty could have extended as far south of the Great Lakes as climate and seasons were found accommodating the Law of Moses. However, this does not mean that the principal lands of the Book of Mormon spread over much of the eastern United States; as in the exaggerated Heartland model.

Attacking the vulnerable Heartland model, Dr. Wright tries to make something of the fact that the Book of Mormon never uses the expression “plains of the Nephites” which the Prophet designated while traveling through the heartland of America with Zion’s camp. (Personal Writing of Joseph Smith, Compiled and Edited by Dean C. Jessee, pp. 344-336) Wright admits that the Book of Mormon mentions “plains” near Nephite principal territories. (Alma 52:20; 62:18) But these level lands were by a body of water called “the east sea”. (Alma 50:13; 51:24-26) These are certainly not “the plains of the Nephites” Joseph referred to in the heartland; when “recounting ocasionaly [occasionally] the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord…” (June 1834)

So where are the principal lands?

With the general location of the land Cumorah revealed in scripture (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20), and given the fact that earth and timber Zarahemla was not a great distance from the “land among many waters” (near the Finger Lakes, Mosiah 8:8; 21:25-26), and also considering that principal lands of the Book of Mormon possessed a general southward rise in elevation (like western NY), the “west sea” of compact, principal Book of Mormon lands can only be Lake Erie. This is the same inland sea coast whose native peoples are identified in LDS scripture as a remnant of Book of Mormon people (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 28:8); the same sea to which the people of Nephi congregated during a period of drought, and from which they spread after the drought. (Helaman 11:20) In the early days of the Church, missionaries were sent to the encampments of “the Lamanites, residing in the west” by freshwater Lake Erie! (History of the Church 1:118-120) Sister Phyllis Olive was one of the first to see all this clearly and get it right!

It’s a scriptural fact that the principle lands of the Book of Mormon situate inland a short distance from the coast of “the west sea”. What then is the American heartland relative to these principal lands? The answer is also found in scripture: The heartland of America is the “south country” or “south countries” mentioned in both the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. (Mormon 6:15; 8:2, LDS Doctrine and Covenants 75:8, 17)

The Doctrine and Covenants even indicates what it was that these lands were “south” of. They were south of the region of Amherst Ohio where Joseph received the revelation contained in the 75th section. In other words they were “south” of Lake Erie. The “plains of the Nephites” in the American heartland are regions Nephites settled after migrating southward from their principal lands near the west and east “yamim” (Hebrew for “seas”; think of the inland Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee).

Though there were later migrations from Central America to temperate North America, the traditions of the peoples of Central American tell that they originally came from the north! (Choice Above All Other Lands, Ch. 1)

The Prophet Joseph Smith supported the views of Alexander von Humboldt, and Josiah Priest in regards to ancient peoples arriving in “the lake country of America” (Great Lakes region). Joseph agreed that descendents of ancient Americans eventually migrated southward into Mexico and Central America. Joseph Smith published in the Times and Seasons (June 15, 1842) an editorial on a chapter from Priest’s American Antiquities, in which the editor tells us where in America, choice above all other lands, Book of Mormon peoples arrived. Joseph says they arrived in “the lake country of America”, the region of Lake Ontario. Joseph uses the same expression, “the lake country”, used by Priest and Humboldt to describe the Great Lake “regions of the now United States”. (Priest, American Antiquities, 1833 edition, pg. 202)

Years before the Book of Mormon was published, Ethan Smith proposed that a relatively civilized ancient Israelite culture was responsible for the numerous earth and timber fortified towns, stockades, towers, temples etc that were found in ruins in lands occupied by the United States. Smith believed these ancient North Americans had numerous wars with more savage brethren and were ultimately exterminated by them. Ethan Smith believed that the vanquished Israelite nation responsible for the massive earth, rock and timber constructions must have existed in large numbers.

Smith also wrote about the magnificent hewn stone “pyramids” in Central America. Like other writers of the time, Smith regarded these stone ruins as relatively recent works – not very ancient! The progenitors of the peoples who built the “pyramids” had, according to Smith, migrated from the temperate north. This was, and in general still is, the prevailing view. (See Ethan Smith and the Authentic Literary Setting for the Book of Mormon)

Peoples of Northern America eventually migrated into Central and South America, and likely carried on some back and forth interactions. 19th Century literature from the American Mound-builder genre entertains this possibility as well.

Smith’s views parallel the fact that the authentic American setting for the Book of Mormon is in Joseph Smith’s own country, a thing that mainstream American History and Literature specialists have long determined.  

Interested in the covenant lands of the Book of Mormon? Place LDS scripture and verifiable statements from Joseph Smith ahead of other sources! Stubbornly chained to their unauthentic tradition, Mesoamerican setting apologists, like Dr. Wright, are mostly wrong!


Vincent Coon וִינְסֶנט כּוּן © Copyright 2013

Mound Builder America and the Book of Mormon


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