Dr. John Sorenson has done more work mining the Book of Mormon text for geographic clues than probably anyone else.
In 1992, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (now the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship) published his research in the 415-page study aid “The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book.” In 2000, FARMS published an updated summary of Sorenson’s work in the book "Mormon's Map."
As a professional scholar, Sorenson recognizes that no text “speaks for itself.” All readers approach a text with preconceived notions, bias and assumptions, and all people interpret passages based on a variety of other influences.
In order to approach the textual elements of geography as bias-free as possible, Sorenson spells out some necessary assumptions that undergird the research.
Randall Spackman, who has reviewed both the works of Drs. John Sorenson and John Clark on the matter of Book of Mormon geography, notes that both scholars explicitly or implicitly recognize the following important scholarly assumptions.
Both scholars assume that the simplest interpretation is likely the best. As Clark explains, “The best internal reconstruction is one which reconciles all of the data in the Book of Mormon with a minimum of additional assumptions.”
Unless there is unmistakable internal evidence for a textual scribal error (and minor errors are part of the human recording and dictation process), all internal geographical features must be consistent with one another. Sorenson claims that his research indicates that all the geographic details are internally consistent, and that Mormon obviously had an accurate mental map of the geography in which the Nephite history took place. Clark adds that we should “assume no duplication of place names unless the text is unambiguous on the matter.”
Sorenson observes that the “expressions ‘up,’ ‘down’ and ‘over,’ when used in a geographical context, refer to elevation. (It turns out that they are used consistently and make sense in terms of elevation.)”
Nature worked the same anciently as it does today,” writes Sorenson. “For example, we can be sure that the headwaters of rivers were at a higher elevation than their mouths, and a river implies the presence of a corresponding drainage basin. (This may seem too obvious to deserve mentioning; however, some students of Book of Mormon geography seem to have missed the point.)”
Although 3 Nephi tells us about cities sinking into the sea, that another city was covered by the earth, and that the whole land was “changed” and “deformed,” we can be assured from the writings of Mormon and Moroni that the lands were still recognizable.
As Sorenson points out, Mormon wrote his account centuries after the destruction took place “yet he was not confused about geographical changes that had occurred at the meridian of time.” Although Zarahemla was destroyed, it was rebuilt on the same spot next to the river Sidon, and the narrow neck “was still the strategic access point for travelers going into the land northward.” Despite the changes that affected the people of Bountiful, their city, homes and temple were all still in place. "They obviously had a continuing food supply, and their communication networks were still in place.”
As Spackman explains, “both textual evidence and logic require an assumption of uniformity in the way nature operates today and operated in Book of Mormon times … subject to the normal laws and processes of nature.”
When an internal model is generated from the text we discover a number of significant features. First, and foremost, the Book of Mormon events took place in a limited geography. Secondly, the overall shape of this geography — at least near the “narrow neck” of land — was somewhat like an hourglass and flanked by an east and west sea.
There are also arguments (to be discussed in greater detail later) which explain Book of Mormon passages that speak of “north” and “south” seas (Helaman 3:8), the description of the land of Nephi and Zarahemla as nearly surrounded by water (Alma 22:32), and why Nephi compared their land to and “isle of the sea” (2 Nephi 10:20).
When an internal map is compared to real-world settings it is important to consider, as observed in an article from FAIR, that “it is impossible to ‘prove’ that a certain internal (or external) map is correct.
“All we can do is show that a certain map is plausible and consistent with everything in the Book of Mormon. It may, however, be possible to disprove a map. If, for example, a map claimed that Zarahemla was on the east of the river Sidon, we would know from our internal map based on the Book of Mormon text that this cannot be true.”