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Monday, June 8, 2015

Post-Millennial Book of Mormon Scholarship

Hi Tennis Shoes Readers,

The following is a rough "Chapter Note" from my latest Tennis Shoes novel entitled Thorns of Glory. (No firm estimate on its release yet. I just go to work everyday.) I hope I have expressed my ideas as well as they can be expressed. If not, I'd be happy to entertain suggestions for improvement, even grammatical. However, if the writing already offers a clear, concise opinion on a certain matter, just let it go. I don't believe in beating dead horses. Strive to stick to information that you think I may not know. I'm not interested in repeating all the data and arguments presently batted back and forth in a myriad of blogs. So here goes:


The geographical setting for the Hill Cumorah and other locations in this novel are, for all practical purposes, speculative. For a detailed description of some of the research that was the foundation of the general region I have selected, the reader is directed to the notes for Chapter 7 of Tennis Shoes Adventure Series Book 12: Drums of Desolation. I should mention that as new research has emerged and more convincing arguments have arisen, I have sometimes revised my opinion of Book of Mormon geography, such as rejecting, for the most part, a popular suggestion that dates back to (about) the 1970s proposing the location of the ancient battleground of the Hill Cumorah as on or near El Cerro Vigia in Veracruz, Mexico. A lengthy discourse of why I felt the landmark was no longer suitable is covered in my notes for Chapter 15 of Tennis Shoes Adventure Series Book 11: Sorcerers and Seers. Over the quarter century that the Tennis Shoes Series has been in development, I have sometimes felt inclined to alter perspectives. This seems the most appropriate way to approach Book of Mormon studies. Unfortunately, it means certain premises offered in my earlier novels of the Tennis Shoes Adventure Series may now be inaccurate. This is not to say that these stories are any less of a "thrill-ride" for their readers, but the rationale behind certain premises may (and I emphasize may) have become obsolete. Why admit such flaws now as I am purportedly writing the last volumes in the series? I suppose because, in the end, I'd rather be perceived as honest and open-minded rather than closed-minded and rigid, especially on an area where even our Church leaders remain officially neutral.

Substantial effort has been made over the decades (almost two centuries now!) to pinpoint the geographic locations of the Book of Mormon. Ever since this volume was first published in 1830 opinions about the setting for cities and events have morphed and altered. Certain tenets have fallen in and out of favor. For the first 100 years after its publication, most Latter-day saints were satisfied with the idea that Book of Mormon events encompassed both hemispheres. Saints who have little interest in scholarly pursuits on this topic may still embrace the same general perspective.

During the first half of the 20th century LDS researchers began to examine the text more carefully and concluded that these events took place in a more limited environment--an isolated geographic area. They compared verses that mentioned directions, the flow of rivers, relationships between cities and other landmarks, as well as other information, alongside emerging developments and methodologies in related secular sciences. An intriguing Book of Mormon geography in Mesoamerica started to congeal that seemed eminently plausible. Many Latter-day Saints became excited. On occasion, and unfortunately, this information seeped into our proselytizing efforts around the world. However, over the last decade or so we have watched enthusiasm for that geography wane—and for reasons that seem to have little to do with the quality of the scholarship.

The next generation may define the golden era of Book of Mormon research as the latter half of the 20th Century. It was during these decades that some of the most thought-provoking, disciplined, and creative LDS thinkers presented their most lucid and well-vetted scenarios. Pursuing this research was quite expensive, and for the most part it was funded by the Church through Brigham Young University under the umbrella of such organizations as F.A.R.M.S. and N.W.A.F.

The scholars of this era, trained in professional University disciplines, built upon each other's work and strove to maintain fundamental objectivity despite their core belief in the Book of Mormon. In other words, they did their research, presented the information, and then, in the best tradition of the scientific method, stood back and allowed the "chips to fall where they may." I note that such scholars were not always perfect in their objectivity, but for the most part they remained remarkably disciplined.

More importantly (in my mind, at least), scholars of the 20th century allowed the average lay member of the Church the freedom to ask the question: "Where did the Book of Mormon take place?" After all, if the volume is true, it had to take place somewhere. LDS scholars of the past generation gave Church members a kind of license to ponder such matters without fear of censure—even from fellow Latter-day Saints, who occasionally felt inclined to remind members that testimony should be based upon faith, not science. 20th century archaeologists, and other LDS scientists, helped us to understand that no such conflict existed, that the two issues were unrelated, and that faith and science could rationally coexist. Disclaimers were often presented side-by-side with scholarly research reaffirming the tenet that personal testimony always trumped science, and that the latter was only meant to supplement the former.

Oftimes those who indulge in scholarly studies have felt irritated by warning voices within the Church, suspecting that some of these fellow believers are better defined as busybodies rather than well-meaning shepherds. I have experienced this same frustration. Despite this, I believe most warning voices are sincerely trying to protect the flock, and frankly, their concerns are not wholly unjustified. Some members of the faith have allowed science to trump spiritual conviction. At times new research has caused well-publicized "evidence" of the Book of Mormon to come under fresh scrutiny. This scrutiny has sometimes shattered former perceptions. As a result, testimonies have sometimes been shaken. The same phenomenon occurs when some members learn isolated details about Joseph Smith or Church history that appear to contradict former understandings. These spiritual challenges—or "tests"—have always existed for Latter-day Saints. The adversary has a wide array of stumbling blocks to place in our paths. Those who launch into any intellectual pursuit, including Book of Mormon research, do so with varying levels of spiritual maturity. There is always the risk that an individual's testimony may falter, no matter how vigilant the warning voices of well-meaning shepherds.

Still, it seems rare that intellectual pursuits are solely responsible for apostasy. It appears commonplace that this "falling away" is accompanied by matters of personal worthiness. I once asked a prominent LDS scholar if he had ever known someone who fell away from the Church strictly because of some doctrinal conflict, whether related to Book of Mormon archaeology or some other intellectual pursuit. This PhD scientist had also served as a bishop. He solemnly replied that, in his experience, he'd never known anyone to apostatize strictly because of doctrinal conflicts, but that individual apostasy was invariably accompanied by serious issues of transgression. I've certainly never pursued a wide sociological study of this, and the point of view of one bishop is hardly the basis of a reliable aphorism. Others might cite anecdotes of apostasy devoid of sins or misdeeds (or object to such a stereotype as it applies to their own decision to abandon the faith). But for what it's worth, the parallel rings true for my own personal observations.

"Moderation in all things" seems to be an appropriate axiom in matters of intellectual study. Many saints can recount anecdotes of friends or family members who have left the Church after becoming obsessed with so-called "mysteries," some of which may seem like "straining at gnats" rather than serious doctrinal controversies. I once met an individual uniquely obsessed with the particulars of the Word of Wisdom. He focused upon "eating meat sparingly and only in times of winter," as well as other verses in D&C Section 89. He harshly judged the general membership of the Church for non-obedience and also spoke disapprovingly of Church leadership for non-enforcement.

Not many years ago I watched a number of friends and acquaintances abandon the Church after articles appeared proclaiming that ancient inhabitants of the Americas could not trace their DNA to the Middle-East, apparently disproving a basic Book of Mormon tenet that at least some descendants of Native Americans had Jewish origins. Later studies have revealed fatal flaws in these initial criticisms and a lack of understanding of mitochondrial DNA. In spite of this rationale defense by respected geneticists, my friends and acquaintances have not, to my knowledge, returned to the Church. To read several articles discussing this subject, go to: http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/publications/dna-and-the-book-of-mormon-johnson and https://www.lds.org/topics/book-of-mormon-and-dna-studies?lang=eng, among others.

Another close friend fell away from the Church in the 1980s after the publication of the "Salamander Letter"--a document purportedly penned by Martin Harris, one of "three witnesses" shown the Gold Plates by the Angel Moroni. This "document" appeared to restyle the Church's narrative about its earliest days and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. One sentence suggested that Joseph Smith was given the macabre commandment (by a magical spirit or "white salamander") to drag the body of his deceased brother, Alvin, to the hill where the plates were deposited. The letter intimated that the origins of the Church were more closely akin to witchcraft and folk magic than traditional Christianity. Later this letter, along with other historical documents, were exposed as forgeries, and the forger, Mark Hoffman, was sentenced to life in prison for murder. Still, these developments did not cause my friend to rejoin the fold. By then he'd reinforced his apostasy with other anti-LDS propaganda. (For an insightful review of the "Salamander Letter" event, see Elder Dallin H. Oaks article at: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1987/10/recent-events-involving-church-history-and-forged-documents?lang=eng.)

With these events in mind, it's understandable why well-meaning Church members sometimes discourage the study of Book of Mormon archaeology or geography, fearing gullible inquirers might fall into similar deceptions. A case can certainly be made that the testimonies of some Latter-day Saints are never entirely disentangled from the "learning of the world." The scriptures address this flaw repeatedly. In Lehi's vision of the Tree of Life the prophet describes those who have partaken of the fruit, but after hearing the laughter of onlookers in the "great and spacious building" they did ". . . cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed (1 Ne. 8:15)." Another example is Sherem in the Book of Jacob, who refused to believe in Christ, the Atonement, or any other doctrine until the Lord (or Jacob) showed him a sign (Jacob 7:13-16). Am I suggesting that some Church members who study Book of Mormon geography and archaeology seek similar signs? Absolutely. Am I suggesting that this tendency describes everyone who pursues such studies? Absolutely not. I believe those in the first category are vastly in the minority.

Like most Latter-day Saints, I gained my testimony the "old fashioned way," precisely as outlined in Moroni 10:3-5. Studies in Book of Mormon geography have only served to paint a more vivid picture of cultures that might have evolved from the Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites. Such studies have helped illuminate the complexity of the civilizations portrayed in the Book of Mormon, but I've sought to never allow such studies to interfere with my personal testimony.

Sometime around the turn of the 21st century the study of Book of Mormon archaeology and geography fell upon hard times and became somewhat foggy in its motives and disciplines. Privately-funded sources rejected virtually all of the work done by LDS scholars over the last half century. Despite the development of an intriguing Mesoamerican model of Book of Mormon geography, these forces remain determined to establish a geography they believe existed in the earliest days of the Church—a model placing Book of Mormon territory inside the borders of United States, primarily in the East and Great Lakes regions, including the hill near Palmyra, NY where Joseph Smith found the Gold Plates in 1823. This is commonly known as the "Heartland" model of Book of Mormon geography.

Heartland supporters have embarked upon an aggressive campaign to overwhelm and diminish any theories related to the Mesoamerican model. The scope of this phenomenon may be unprecedented in LDS history as it relates to Book of Mormon scholarship. Those who follow its progress have likely observed that the issue divides the lay membership of the Church in a visceral way. As suggested by its name, the Heartland "movement", at its core, is energized by statism and American exceptionalism. One of its most touted principals is that America is the only nation in the western hemisphere that qualifies as "blessed" or as a "promised land" according to 2 Nephi 1:5-9 and other Book of Mormon verses. In the words of Rodney Meldrum, President of the FIRM Organization and a foremost Heartland advocate, "This is the promised land. The prophecies and promises indicate that the United States has to be at least some part of the Book of Mormon, because practically every one of these promises in it can only really be applied as the United States. It is a nation 'above all other nations,' and a 'mighty' Gentile nation. Well, what other nation are they talking about here? I don't think that they are talking about Guatemala here."

This concept has proven attractive to many American Latter-day Saints, despite the fact that several Church Presidents and other LDS general authorities have expressed that the same "prophecies and promises" could be applied to other lands and nations in the New World. President Brigham Young taught in August of 1852, "The land of Joseph is the land of Zion; and it takes North and South America to make the land of Joseph (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol.6, p. 296, Brigham Young, August 15, 1852)." President Heber J. Grant stated, “I am a firm believer that this country, both North and South America, is the choice land of the world, a land choice above all other lands, according to the words of the prophets in the Book of Mormon. (Heber J. Grant, Conference Report, October 1937, p. 98)."

My favorite quote may be from Ezra Taft Benson to the Saints in Bolivia in 1979:
"God raised up wise leaders among your progenitors which afforded Latin American countries political freedom and independence. I only mention the names of a few whom God raised up to accomplish His holy and Sovereign purposes: Jose de San Martin, Bernardo O’Higgins, and Simon Bolivar. These were some of the founding fathers of your continent. I believe it was very significant that when independence came to the countries of South America, governments were established on constitutional principles–some patterned after the Constitution of the United States. I believe this was a very necessary step which preceded the preaching of the gospel in South America." (Ezra Taft Benson, “The Righteous Need not Fear,” La Paz, Bolivia, 10-18 January 1979, in Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 695.) For additional statements from other Church leaders, including J. Reuban Clark, David O. McKay, Spencer W. Kimball, and others see: http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Geography/Statements/Twentieth_century).

I will state here that, for me personally, when it comes to the labels I place upon myself, of none am I more proud than that of being an American—except one: That of being a Latter-day Saint. If these two labels ever came in irreconcilable conflict, I'm afraid the first would be dwarfed by the second. I pray, therefore, that such a conflict never arises in my lifetime.

Heartland advocates also tend to emphasize the preeminent authority of Joseph Smith in matters of Book of Mormon geography over and above statements by subsequent Church leaders, despite the fact that Joseph himself remained open and did not declare a firm Book of Mormon geography. Throughout his life Joseph Smith made various statements suggesting a Book of Mormon connection in both North and Central America, but never identified any specific Book of Mormon location. Some feel this was deliberate; that he preferred to leave such matters to faith. Yet Heartland supporters carefully select statements from Joseph Smith's life (generally statements prior to 1835) and shape him as the undisputed resource of all geographical information related to the Book of Mormon, ignoring any subsequent messages from Church leadership to the contrary. For example, Harold B. Lee stated, "Well, if the Lord wanted us to know where it was or where Zarahemla was, He’d have given us latitude and longitude, don’t you think?" (Teachings of Harold B. Lee, Deseret Book, 1996, pg. 155).

The idea that Joseph Smith was superior in authority to all other Church Presidents is hardly new. Such a conviction was the motivation for many members to abandon the Church in the days of Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, and up to the modern age. Heartland advocates might deny this tendency as a core flaw, but their teachings come razor close to reasserting a familiar pattern. Even the title of their documentary series, Joseph Knew, implies that Joseph Smith taught something about Book of Mormon geography that later Church leaders somehow did not pick up on, and that it took modern, lay LDS researchers to uncover and popularize it.

It's important to note that the rise of Heartland "movement" coincides with two intriguing phenomenon: 1. The defunding and reorganization of certain Church-supported groups such as F.A.R.M.S. and N.W.A.F. that for decades actively pursued Book of Mormon apologetics and scholarship, and 2. the rise of political conservative movements in the United States who feel threatened by modern liberal policies in American politics. Such movements include the "Tea Party Patriots" who powerfully influenced election results in the 2010 mid-terms and beyond. The vacuum created by the first phenomenon and the retrenchment inspired by the second have given Heartland supporters an undeniable surge in popularity, despite the fact that most LDS scholars still dismiss their theories as amateurish and agenda-oriented, fitting the model to science as opposed to allowing science to shape the model.

Of particular concern, Heartland advocates have stated that their model can be confirmed by personal revelation. An analysis of such statements can be found here: http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/publications/misguided-zeal-and-defense-of-the-church-2. Although direct promises of spiritual confirmation have been tempered in recent years, and some of these statements may have been removed or revised, it is still common for them to advise those who study their model to simultaneously seek spiritual guidance. On the surface this is harmless enough. One presumes that believing Latter-day Saints pursue this advice in every facet of their lives. So to specifically mention this principle in direct association with theories not endorsed by the Church seems ill-advised. The inference is that proponents of these theories have received spiritual confirmation—and that you can too. Most Latter-day Saints recognize that any such spiritual confirmation is in direct contradiction of Church policy and the established pattern of general revelation for the Church as a whole as outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants (see Section 21 and Section 28).

Over the past few years heated debates have arisen between advocates of Mesoamerican models and the Heartland model. Neither side has been entirely immune from letting the rhetoric degenerate into insults and name-calling. Some members of the Church, recognizing an intense spirit of contention, have expressed a preference not to indulge in any discussion of Book of Mormon research or geography, which may have the equally negative effect of inhibiting or stunting any natural human curiosity that Book of Mormon believers should feel free to foster.

In the end this present-day cycle in Book of Mormon scholarship may run its course and prove perfectly healthy. Church members may feel more inclined to solidify their testimonies based upon spiritual criteria before embarking upon other theoretical pursuits. We can hope that future scholars will represent the highest professional disciplines, and will therefore vet, enhance, and improve their Book of Mormon studies while allowing our natural curiosity to breathe—but without permitting contentious proselytizing for one side or the other to infect the research. Admittedly, I presently judge the fruits of LDS researchers who believe the Book of Mormon took place in the Eastern United States to be sloppy, forced, and agenda-driven. However, I want to remain open to the idea that this may not always be the case. Stranger things have taken place in the history of academic progress, although at present a complete abandonment of the excellent research offered by LDS scholars of the last 30-50 years seems not only ludicrous, but reckless and damaging.

Like any other well-meaning protector of the flock, I'm equally inclined to say that it really doesn't matter where in the New World Book of Mormon events took place as long we hold firm that they did take place somewhere in the New World. Whichever Book of Mormon model ultimately settles into place as the most plausible, it cannot be understated that an overarching respect for present Church leadership stands supreme and must never be blurred. In addition, I implore all saints to acknowledge that the blessings and promises found in the Book of Mormon are available to faithful saints in both hemispheres—as well as righteous members across the globe—and that such discussions should never be allowed to devolve into debates about the superiority of any people or nation based upon exceptionalism or pride. 


  1. I love reading your notes. I find it completely fascinating! For me, I find that science and religion can get along very well as long as we remember that science is all about learning and finding things that we have never found before! It is not an absolute like God. To me God is very much a scientist and natural curiosity we have for learning new things and exploration is a gift from him!

  2. Understatement, Breanna. God is THE Scientist. And Mathematician. And Artist. And Gardener. And Mover of mountains and worlds. It's ALL Him. And we are also part of Him and what He is and how He made us.