Back in about 1990 I had a fascinating and instructive experience while attending the LDS Booksellers Convention at the Salt Lake City Expo Mart. At that time I was plugging my new book entitled Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites. At such a convention, of course, there are hundreds of booths hawking everything from crystal statues of LDS temples to missionary neck-ties. At this particular Convention there was also a certain booth manned by a kindly old gentlemen who sold a thick, beautifully-illustrated volume that promoted his own powerfully-held theory that the Book of Mormon took place in South America. We spoke for a long time. I was rather new to the bookselling business and wanted to keep an open mind about Book of Mormon geography, especially since I fully intended to write more novels in the future that celebrated this volume of scripture and the spiritual testimony of it that I had gained ten years earlier.
This gentleman spoke with an uncommon zeal and persuasive passion regarding his theories about how South America had been almost entirely submerged during the time period of the Book of Mormon. He pointed out a series of verses in the scripture that referred to Nephite and Lamanite lands as an "isle" or island (see 2 Ne. 10:20-21, 2 Ne. 29:7) in the midst of a great ocean. This, he felt, supported his contention that, except for segments of the Andes Mountains, the rest of South America was under water. He expressed many other points as well which he felt represented irrefutable evidence, and (of course) all of these evidences he felt were verifiable by fields of science.
Now this man was, himself, not a scientist. He was actually a retired insurance salesman. And as a result of his success in that field he had acquired a healthy nest egg of funds that allowed him to produce his book, and shortly thereafter, several videos which would further augment his particular theories about the Book of Mormon. He revealed to me that he fully intended to pursue the creation of a whole series of videos that would promote his archaeological convictions. I asked him if he had yet seen a profit from his self-published book. He humbly reported that he had not, but that he had great hopes for the future. I was quite impressed with his perserverance and I asked him, frankly, why he felt so inclined to devote so much personal time and resources to this particular project.
All at once this kindly insurance salesman became quite solemn. With profound seriousness and sobriety he looked me straight in the eye and revealed that he was following the will of God. He firmly believed that he had a spiritual witness as to the correctness of his particular views. Because his ambitions were motivated by private revelation, he had taken on this project with all the zeal of a personal "mission," and he could not, and would not, turn back.
I was immediately and perceptibly deflated. In a real sense, the gig was up. Although I had only been a Latter-day Saint for about ten years, I was fortunate enough to have had several religious instructors at BYU, as well as instructors during my mission (and probably elsewhere in responsible Gospel Doctrine classes) who appropriately emphasized a critical principal of the Restored Church of Jesus Christ. This principle is beautifully illustrated in the 28th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. Herein we find a revelation given through Joseph Smith, Jr. to Oliver Cowdery in September of 1830. The revelation was received in response to a rather peculiar phenomenon in the newly-organized Church. Apparently a Church member named Hiram Page had acquired a seerstone of sorts and was professing to receive revelations for the benefit of other Church members. Such revelations involved the building of Zion and the future order of the Church. In no uncertain terms, the Lord revealed the following to Oliver through the Prophet Joseph:
"...behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall
be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in
this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he
receiveth them even as Moses.
"And thou shalt be obedient unto the things which I shall give
unto him, even as Aaron, to declare faithfully the commandments
and the revelations, with power and authority unto the church.
"And if thou art led at any time by the Comforter to speak or
teach, or at all times by the way of commandment unto the
church, thou mayest do it.
"But thou shalt not write by way of commandment, but
"And thou shalt not command him who is at thy head, and at the
head of the church;
"For I have given him the keys of the mysteries, and the
revelations which are sealed, until I shall appoint unto them
another in his stead."
I have emphasized the phrase in the last verse for good reason. It stresses that any information which purports to expound upon knowledge directly associated with LDS doctrine must be revealed to the general populace of the Church by the Lord's Prophet--and no one else has the authority or stewardship to do so.
This might be one of the most significant teachings of the LDS Church related to its structure and organization. It's a wonderful and simple doctrine which leaves no wiggle room. It protects the saints from deception, and it prevents individual members from falling into grave errors that may eventually undermine and devastate the core of their testimonies, causing them to become one of the lost "seeds" alluded to in the Savior's Parable of the Sower (see Matthew Chapter 13, in particualr vs. 19). I'll clarify again, what this means to the average Church member is that no one can expound upon, or add new information to the canon of revealed knowledge who is not the Prophet and President of the LDS Church. But it means even more than that. It means nobody should accept guidance that purportedly originates from divine revelation from any other member of the Church unless that person holds an official position of stewardship over them. And even so, the spiritual guidence must relate to the particular parameters (better known as "keys") of that stewardship.
In other words, an Elders Quorum President may receive revelation as to who should home-teach whom, but he cannot recieve revelation as to whether or not I should move to a different neighborhood, strive to have another child, or take on a new job, etc., etc., etc. Moreover, even in a case, for example, where a Bishop feels inspired to offer specific spiritual counsel to a father or mother regarding certain temporal decisions, that father or mother has every right to seek and receive spiritual confirmation as to that directive. In every circumstance it is always strongly advised that an individual seek that confirmation. In certain matters it may admittedly be less necessary, such as when receiving a Bishop's calling to become the next Sunbeam instructor. After all, a Bishop's stewardship is integrally connected to his responsibility to issue callings to members of his congregation. Divine confirmation may be unnecessary in such circumstances. It may simply be an act of obedience on our part. However receiving confirmation on such callings is still a worthwhile and recommended objective.
However, on more serious matters, I believe seeking spiritual confirmation is paramount. This especially holds true for families. If a husband and Preisthood holder, for example, receives a revelation regarding an important family matter, the wife has every right to beseech the Lord in prayer and have that revelation confirmed to her. It could be argued that the Priesthood head-of-the-home has the final say, but I've also heard it said that if a Priesthold holder dogmatically enforces his authority against the will of his wife, Amen to that authority.
But regarding new revelation that will benefit of the entire Church, the matter of who has stewardship to receive such inspiration and guidence has been settled. And there can be no doubt that spiritual revelation regarding the geographic location of cities or events in the Book of Mormon would fit the category of new revelation. Therefore, the task of defining such by revelation is strictly reserved for the President of the Church.
Because I was fortunate enough to have been taught this basic and vital principle of revelatory stewardship, I felt immediately inclined to suspect the validity of everything this kindly insurance salesman was "selling." As the years went on, and I watched this gentleman earnestly fulfill his goal of producing multiple videos and other teaching tools promoting his geographical "inspirations," I began to actually feel sorry for him. I hope this admisson does not sound patronizing. I certainly have many of my own faults to contend with. But as I thought about the genuine good that this man might have accomplished if he had devoted his time and resources to some other noble pursuit, it made me deeply sad. The truth was, if he had fully understood the principal of revelatory stewardship as taught in D&C 28 beforehand, he would have soundly rejected his so-called "revelations." He would have recognized that the source could not have been Divine. He would have known this simply by virtue of the kind of information he was being encouraged to promote. If the requisite structure of the Church had been understood, a great portion of the later years of his life might have been reserved for some worthier purpose.
I wish this was the only example that I could cite of my personal experience with a misunderstanding of revelatory stewardship. Some years after my encounter at the LDS Bookseller's Convention, a kind of strange hysteria gripped the Church regarding the near-death experiences of an LDS woman named Betty Eadie. She published a book called Embraced by the Light which became a local best-seller and later went on to international success. For several months, despite the desperate attempts of many to expose the hysteria by placing her published experiences up against the doctrine of revelatory stewardship, her "visions" of the afterlife flourished and fooled many naive and unprepared members of the Church. In this particular case there was apparently a rare intercession made by General Authorities. A good friend of mine (I wish I had a better resource, but that's what I have) reported to me that he attended a Stake Conference in Las Vegas wherein Elder Boyd K. Packer specifically informed the congregation that Sister Eadie, "could not have been where she said that she had been." This kind of intercession from a General Authority is very rare indeed. In later months I came to understand that Sister Eadie strayed away from the Church and began holding meetings where she would attract a colorful array of "new age" groupies. I was informed that she sometimes laid her hands on their heads to offer divine blessings and her own new brand of spiritual enlightenment.
I am not aware of any definitive statement ever made by a Church President supporting a specific Book of Mormon geography. In fact, in-depth studies have been presented that adamantly reinforce this contention (see John E. Clark, "Book of Mormon Geography," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, pg 178.) Although some Church leaders of the past may have expressed opinions regarding certain areas of the world, others have expressed opinions on other areas. (In all fairness, I should note that to find any Apostles or Church Presidents who favor models encompassing the Great Lakes, South America, or the entire breadth of North and South America, one must go back two or three generations, and in most cases, more than a century.) For example, Joseph Fielding Smith seemed to reject a limited geographical model and expressed this opinion repeatedly. The point can be made that he did so prior to his calling as Church President, and more importantly, that it was, in fact, a personal opinion that he never defined as a revelation. The notion that General Authorities can express fallible opinions is sometimes overlooked by Church members, as if such a concept is somehow akin to disloyalty. But if General Authorities were not occasionally prone to human failings, we would have to harshly judge Joseph Fielding Smith for his strongly-worded 1961 opinion that man will "never get into space" and that he was "never intended" to reach the moon.
Fortunately, Joseph Smith, Jr. was adamant in his declaration that a prophet was only a prophet "when he is acting as such" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 278). Therefore, we need not deeply concern ourselves with a General Authorities' occasional misstatement (though again, it should be noted that Joseph Fielding Smith never identified his "moon" opinion as a revelation--just as an exegesis of his particular theological understanding--and he expressed it almost ten years prior to being called as Church President).
Even today Latter-day Saints are not immune from falling into errors regarding revelatory stewardship. After all, we firmly believe in revelation! Many of us have experienced it firsthand. Profound instances of direct spiritual guidance are such a commonality among faithful saints that it's hardly worth noting. We've seen it, heard it, and more often than not, personally experienced it. Perhaps precisely because of this commonality, certain Church members are easily deceived by charismatic fellow saints who profess revelations outside the established structure of the Restored Church.
So what should we think today if we hear of any individuals who routinely profess spiritual guidance regarding Book of Mormon geography? As I hope I have successfully reminded readers, the answer is simple. And thank goodness it is so simple! Just as with that kindly gentleman who professed inspiration for his book and video series promoting South America, such teachings should be dramatically and unequivocally rejected. And frankly, the same would be true even if such individuals professed divine guidance corresponding to today's most commonly supported model of Book of Mormon geography--that of Mesoamerica and the region of Tehuantepec. Only the Lord's established Prophet--who today is Thomas S. Monson--has the authority and stewardship to confirm any proposed model. And as of this date he has elected not to do so.
It may be that some of the books and videos of this kindly insurance salesman are still available in some LDS bookstores. However, for the most part his teachings and products appear to have fallen by the wayside. So now we must ask, have any other individuals appeared on the scene professing revelation or spiritual guidance concerning a particular Book of Mormon geographical model? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. And perhaps more unfortunately, such individuals appear to have a knack for marketing and promotion heretofore unknown among the annals of misguided Latter-day Saints.
The model that these individuals are promoting revolves around the Great Lakes region of the United States. Now, to be fair, this is not an unheard of model. It has been pursued and subjected to rigorous testing and speculation many times in the past. And frankly, it remains a fair avenue of pursuit for any disciplined and intelligent individual who pursues it. But the instant anyone begins to profess divine guidance in association with these perspectives, well then, as I have already said, the gig is up. Latter-day Saints can know with certainty that something very deceptive, and possibly dangerous, is afoot. And all Latter-day Saints who devote attention (and finances!) in support of such individuals do so at their own peril. What is particularly noteworthy to me is how brazen these individuals are when it comes to dismissing all of the work of dedicated researchers of the past fifty years in favor of their supposed quest to "re-establish...Joseph Smith as the preeminent scholar on the subject of Book of Mormon geography." This is despite the fact that Joseph Smith never revealed any definitive information on such a subject. (Curiously, I seem to recall that proponents of plural marriage have adopted a very similar stance, ignoring everything Church Presidents have said about plural marriage after Joseph Smith or John Taylor. See a familiar pattern?) For a full discussion of the particular concern that I am referring to, I offer the following link: Link
With regard to scholarship and the Book of Mormon the Lord appears to have given Latter-day Saints an extraordinary opportunity. Those of us who have already acquired a spiritual testimony of the Book of Mormon's divinity through traditional spiritual means (i.e. Mor 10: 3-5) are hereby invited to embark upon a unique and marvelous adventure. The benefits of pursuing this adventure are enormous. Those who embark will find themselves more deeply devoted, more educationally prepared, and more divinely uplifted than if they had never embarked upon the adventure in the first place.
The reality is, those of us who know the Book of Mormon is true must accept that it did, in fact, take place somewhere. So let the exploration continue! I firmly believe that this dedicated pursuit of knowledge is exactly the Lord's desire and intent for his children of the last days (note that this is my opinion, not a revelation). The benefit that I have personally received, and the appreciation for the Book of Mormon that I have gained, as a result of actively pursuing this inborn, innate, and very "human" curiousity can scarely be measured. And the thing is, I don't think I would have gained these benefits any other way. Now imagine what I personally would have lost--truly lost--if this information had been handed to me on a silver platter by a prophetic revelation. The search was the thing: the blessings acquired because of that search. In modern times the Lord has provided some incredible tools to aid in this exploration from the fields of archaeology, anthropology and a host of other sciences. If such tools exist in today's universe, why in blue blazes should any credible person allow them to be diminished or ignored?
Now I must confess, this adventure and exploration is not for everyone. Quite honestly, I think the majority of our Church members are perfectly satisfied and fulfilled by studying the pages of the Book of Mormon merely for spiritual guidance, doctrinal insight, and Godly comfort. But for those of us who "suffer" from an inborn curiousity regarding Book of Mormon scholarship, I heartily welcome you to join me in the adventure. But in so doing, remember these three simple rules: never sacrifice common sense, always allow your explorations to be circumscribed by your natural gifts of logic and intelligence (which should obviously allow for the litmus of the scientific method), and never allow yourself to be deceived by those pernicious wolves in sheep's clothing--particularly wolves whose opinions and perspectives are inseparably tied to streams of income. The Book of Mormon also clearly defines any intermarriage between "inspired" dogma and profitable earnings.
We call it Priestcraft. (See 2 Ne 26:29, Alma 1:16)
(Please note that this blog can be directly compared with a previous blog called "A Lost Generation of Scholarship." This previous blog has been extensively rewritten as a result of information that I received while lunching with a number of LDS Mesoamericanists over the past week. I invite those who have read it to study it again. http://frostcave.blogspot.com/2009/09/lost-generation-of-scholarship.html.)
(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger