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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Michael R. Ash: Models for Book of Mormon geography

Published: Monday, Oct. 25 2010 6:00 a.m. MDT

Just more than eight months ago I began talking about Book of Mormon geography in this series of articles. I broke away from that discussion to talk about how the Book of Mormon peoples might have come from the New World. Today, I’d like to revisit the topic of geography.

Originally I pointed out that there is no official Book of Mormon geography. This means that the LDS Church does not support one theory over another and that no prophet — including Joseph Smith — has claimed that God has revealed the location for Book of Mormon events. We should be wary of any person or group who tries to foist a geography on members by stating or implying that their theories are based on revelation and that those who disagree with their views are out of step with the words of the prophets.

It was also pointed out that in the absence of revelation, prophets and members are equally free to formulate their own theories on the matter. When we move from revelation to theory, it should become obvious that the best and strongest models (or paradigms) are those which utilize the tools of science and scholarship — data and analysis.

Strong models are those which 1) are supported by the strongest evidences, 2) do the best job accounting for all the data and 3) have the fewest anomalies (or things that don’t fit neatly into the model). Some people might be tempted to think that a good model shouldn’t have any anomalies, but the philosophy of science has shown that no paradigm is completely free of anomalies.

When we look at the competing Book of Mormon geographies we find that among believers, there are several theories. According to the FAIR Wiki, there are several dozen different LDS models. Most of these models, however, are variations of a handful of distinct models but differ in minor details, such as the precise location of Book of Mormon cities.

For New World Book of Mormon Geography, we can safely divide the models into two major categories and at least four minor categories. The two major classifications are Hemispheric Geographies and Limited Geographies.

The Hemispheric Geography is probably the oldest model and — simply because of tradition — may still be the most popular among those who have never really analyzed the data. While those who accept a hemispheric model may disagree on the exact location of various Book of Mormon cities, they typically agree that modern-day Panama represents the “narrow neck” of land and that North America therefore represents the land “northward” and South America the land “southward.”

If we wanted to place those three features on a modern map of the New World, the hemispheric model looks like a perfect fit. It’s no wonder that most of the early Saints and many modern Saints have simply assumed a hemispheric model without any additional thought or analysis.

In the early days of the church, few Latter-day Saints read the Book of Mormon with scholarly rigor. Early journals and articles show that Joseph  and other members were interested in historical, archaeological and geographical evidences that supported the Book of Mormon, but it doesn’t seem that much effort was made to analyze the text for geographic clues. And like some proponents of modern Book of Mormon geographic models, some of the early Saints grasped for anything that seemed like evidence for the Book of Mormon even if it didn’t coincide with historical, archeological or interrelated geographical features.

Joseph obviously had his own thoughts about the possible location of Book of Mormon lands, but he never claimed that his personal views on the matter were based on divine revelation. It even appears that the Prophet's views on the geography evolved and shifted with increased information.

Some of Joseph’s statements, for example, appear to support the traditional Hemispheric Geography. After reading news of discoveries in Central American, however, he suggested that the land was once inhabited by the Nephites. Since the Nephites primarily occupied lands south of the "narrow neck," Panama couldn’t possibly be the "narrow neck" if the Nephites lived in Central America.

It’s hard to know if Joseph Smith realized this fact or if it altered his general views on Book of Mormon geography. It’s also ironic that, while critics claim that Joseph was smart enough to write a fictional Book of Mormon — a book that is amazingly consistent in keeping track of wars, stories, people and internal geographic features — he was apparently not familiar enough with his own work to know positively where the events took place.

When we really dig into the Nephite scripture, we find that a Limited Geography better fits the text. Some textual examples and analysis will be discussed in the next installment.

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