The fight over Book of Mormon geography

Published: Thursday, May 27 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

The discussion on Book of Mormon geography was getting heated. Scholars gathered in Provo, Utah, to discuss their theories about where the events described in the Book of Mormon took place. Some placed the Nephite capital city Zarahemla in Mesoamerica, others in South America. Others argued for a setting in the American heartland.

The president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attended the two-day Book of Mormon convention. Although he found the discussion interesting, he was obviously concerned that people were getting a little too worked up about their geographic theories. He decided to intervene.

The Book of Mormon geography conference was held at Brigham Young Academy on May 23-24, 1903. But the advice President Joseph F. Smith gave at that conference 107 years ago could apply equally to current disputes over Book of Mormon geography.

"President Smith spoke briefly," the Deseret News account summarized, "and expressed the idea that the question of the city (of Zarahemla) was one of interest certainly, but if it could not be located the matter was not of vital importance, and if there were differences of opinion on the question it would not affect the salvation of the people; and he advised against students considering it of such vital importance as the principles of the Gospel."

More recently, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism described how "Church leadership officially and consistently distances itself from issues regarding Book of Mormon geography."

But the lack of an official position hasn't squelched interest. The subject attracts highly trained archaeologists and scholars and informed — and not-so-informed — amateurs and enthusiasts. Books, lectures and even Book of Mormon lands tours abound.

But something is rotten in Zarahemla — wherever it may be.

In the middle of what could be a fun and intellectually exciting pursuit similar to archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann's famous search for the lost city of Troy, there are accusations of disloyalty tantamount to apostasy.

In one corner is the more-established idea of a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon. This theory places the events of the book in a limited geographic setting that is about the same size as ancient Israel. The location is in southern Mexico and Guatemala. The person most often associated with this theory is John L. Sorenson, a retired professor of anthropology at BYU, and the author of "An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon" and a series of articles on Book of Mormon geography that ran in the Ensign magazine in September and October 1984. A new book, tentatively titled "Mormon's Codex," is in the process of being published.

In the other corner is the challenger, a new theory that places Book of Mormon events in a North American "heartland" setting. Like the Mesoamerican theory, it also is limited in area — but not quite as limited. Its symbolic head is Rod L. Meldrum and, more recently, Bruce H. Porter. Meldrum and Porter are the co-authors of the book "Prophecies and Promises," which promotes the heartland setting.

It wouldn't be hard to predict that some friction might come about from competing theories — that healthy sparring would occur with arguments and counter-arguments. But it has gone beyond that.

The source of the animosity comes from the heartland theory's mantra: "Joseph knew."

Joseph Smith made several statements that can be interpreted to have geographic implications. Proponents of a North American setting see these statements as authoritative and based in revelation. Mesoamerican theorists think that Joseph Smith's ideas about geography expanded over time and included approval of at least some connection to Central America.

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