The Shifting Focus of Book of Mormon Geography

Relics of some lost race were found with nearly every turn of the spade in upper New York during the early years of colonization. Thus, it was commonly accepted by scholars and laymen alike, and even by the early saints, that an ancient civilization once occupied the area long before the Indians became lords of the land. Yet it is the Indians who hold the secrets relevant to the lost lands of the Book of Mormon. In the introduction of the Book of Mormon we read:

The record gives an account of two great civilizations. One came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C., and afterwards separated into two nations, one known as the Nephites, and the other the Lamanites. . . after a thousand years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”

    Unfortunately, the Saints were not too interested in earth works found in the area for they believed they were not grand enough to be those left by the Nephites. Thus, the Saints began to look elsewhere for the lands of  the Book of Mormon which led the noted intellectual and LDS archaeologist, Hugh Nibley, to say:

     Blinded by the gold of the pharaohs and the mighty ruins of Babylon, Book of Mormon students have declared themselves “not interested” in the drab and common place remains of our lowly Indians. But in all the Book of Mormon we look in vain for anything that promises majestic ruins.[1]

As the Saints moved further and further away from New York during their years of exile, the memory of Cumorah soon faded from their minds. Even so, the questions about where Book of Mormon activity took place was never far from their thoughts which prompted the rise of a number of theories about where it all may have taken place. Unfortunately, some of the landmarks mentioned in the scriptures could not be readily identified at that early point in history. In fact, little effort was given the study of Book of Mormon geography during the years the Saints were being persecuted and driven from place to place and ultimately to the Rocky Mountains.

Because the few maps available made it clear that North America was connected to South America by a much narrower neck of land, the entire hemisphere was thought to be Book of Mormon territory for a time, with all the native tribes of the Americas thought to be Lamanites, for they all looked pretty much alike to the Saints. However, as more and more attention began to be given the scriptures it became pretty obvious that the hemispheric model had to be pared down, for people of the ancient world simply did not have the means or inclination to travel over such extensive territories unless migrating. The Book of Mormon describes movement from one city to the next taking in just a day or two. In fact, when King Benjamin called all the people of Zarahemla together to announce that his son Mosiah would succeed him to the throne, they gathered in just one day, for he taught them on the “morrow.”

Such incidents make it all too obvious that they did not gather together across hundreds of miles as required in the hemispheric model. This was a very limited area, one small enough that armies could march from city to city in just a day or two to help defend a neighbor’s city, or help build or repair a town destroyed by the Lamanites.

Thus, the saints were primed and ready when John Lloyd Stephen’s book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, came out with its illustrated drawings and descriptions of the wondrous Mayan temples and monuments found in Mesoamerica. Here they had evidence of civilized and cultured people and in a much more limited area. Little did they know at the time that the Maya would prove to be a fearful race, with a decadent pagan religion. The temples once thought to be Nephite temples were stained with the blood of countless thousands sacrificial victims, who, after ascending the steps of the temple, had their hearts torn out. However, we might remember that the Lord himself forbid the Israelites from building in hewn stone like the Maya did, or of constructing steps such as those that led to Mayan altars. He said:

   An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, . . . And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone, for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon. (Exodus 20:24-26.)

Gratefully, after finally deciphering their strange hieroglyphics, the dark world of the Maya has finally come to light, a people nothing like the Nephites. Frank Joseph revealed in an article on the subject that “in July of 2001, the world’s leading authorities on the Maya civilization convened for a conference near Copan. . . . Honduras’ first Copan Congress illuminated the dark world of the Maya and revealed a people who made great cultural achievements, but displayed equally great cruelty. J. Leslie Mitchell referred to their religion as being ‘as dreadful as the world has ever seen,’ and substantiates that opinion by referring to their customs of ‘tortures, flaying people alive, and human sacrifice.” [2] It is no wonder the Spanish Fathers burned so many Mayan books when they first came upon them, lest Christianity be stopped in its progress.

Unfortunately, the early Saints had no way of knowing such facts at the time, nor much in the way of instruction on geography or the ethnology of the various races scattered across the hemisphere. Moreover, there were no alternate theories being presented, nor any way to debate them if they had. Nor could they have known at the time that most of the ruins thought to be Nephite in origin post-date the Nephite era by several centuries. Even John Lloyd Stephens himself did not date the Mayan ruins he discovered and wrote about very much earlier than the Spanish Invasion. He said:

    I am inclined to think that there are not sufficient grounds for the belief in the great antiquity that has been ascribed to these ruins; that they are not the works of people who have passed away and whose history has become unknown. Opposite as is my idea to all previous speculations, I am inclined to think that they were constructed by races who occupied the country at the time of the invasion by the Spaniards, or of some not very distant progenitors.[3]

Time and modern dating methods have proven him right, but little of that information ever filtered down to the Saints. Thus, theories began to rise which placed Zarahemla and other prominent cities in the Book of Mormon in settings from Guatemala to Mexico. Can we suppose that many wagon loads of heavy plates were transported over thousands of miles from Mexico to the Hill Cumorah in New York state where Joseph and Oliver then saw them? Reason suggests NO! As to what the General Authorities have to say on the matter of placing Cumorah in Middle America the following statement by Joseph Fielding Smith should suffice.

   This modernistic theory of necessity, in order to be consistent, must place the waters of Ripliancum and the Hill Cumorah some place within the restricted territory of Central America, notwithstanding the teachings of the Church to the contrary for upwards of 100 years. Because of this theory some members of the Church have become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon. . . . It is known that the Hill Cumorah where the Nephites were destroyed is the hill where the Jaredites were also destroyed. This hill was known to the Jaredites as Ramah. It was approximately near to the waters of Ripliancum, which the Book of Ether says, ‘by interpretation, is large, or to exceed all.”

Mormon adds:

“And it came to pass that we did march forth to the land of Cumorah; and it was in a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains; and here we had hope to gain advantage over the Lamanites.” (Ether 15: 8-11.) It must be conceded that this description fits perfectly the land of Cumorah in New York, as it has been known since the visitation of Moroni to the Prophet Joseph Smith, for the hill is in the proximity of the Great Lakes, and also in the land of many rivers and fountains. Moreover, the Prophet Joseph Smith himself is on record, definitely declaring the present hill called Cumorah to be the exact hill spoken of in the Book of Mormon. Further, the fact that all of his associates from the beginning down have spoken of it as the identical hill where Mormon and Moroni hid the records, must carry some weight.

It is difficult for a reasonable person to believe that such men as Oliver Cowdery, Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, David Whitmer, and many others, could speak frequently of the spot where the Prophet Joseph Smith obtained the plates as the Hill Cumorah, and not be corrected by the Prophet if that were not the fact. That they did speak of this hill in the days of the Prophet in this definite manner is an established record of history. [12]

In speaking of the Indians who became lords of the land after the terrible slaughter at Cumorah O. Turner said:

    We are surrounded by evidence that a race preceded them, further advanced in civilization and the arts, and far more numerous. . . . The uprooted trees of our forests, that are the growth of centuries, expose their moldering remains; . . . the plough and the spade discover their rude implements, adapted to war, the chase, and domestic use. All these are dumb eloquent chronicles of by gone ages. . . . We invoke the aid of revelation, turn over the pages of history, trace the origins and dispersion of the races of mankind from the earliest period of the world’s existence, and yet we gather only enough to form the basis of vague surmise and conjecture. The crumbing walls–the “Ruins” overgrown by the gigantic forests of Central America, are not {anymore} involved in impenetrable obscurity, than are the more humble, but equally interesting mounds and relics that abound in our region.[13]

Let us finally leave Mesoamerica to the people God led to those regions, some of which were also Israelites according to my findings, but not those of Joseph’s seed who were destined to inherit the promised land of America forever, a land choice above all others, a land of liberty seen in prophetic vision as far back as Nephi’s day. In so doing we will make the final paradigm shift from the hemispheric view of Book of Mormon geography and the more limited Mesoamerican setting back to the regions around our very own Hill Cumorah where it belonged all along.