Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Great Lakes Book of Mormon geography

Published: Monday, Dec. 6 2010 6:00 a.m. MST

Beginning in the early 1990s, several Latter-day Saints jumped on the Great Lakes Book of Mormon geography bandwagon.

Because the Great Lakes and Mesoamerican models are by far the two most popular, I plan to spend the next several issues discussing them.

The first Latter-day Saint to publish a Great Lakes model appears to be Delbert Curtis, who in 1988 published the booklet “The Land of the Nephites.” In 1993, he expanded his argument in his book "Christ in North America."

Since 1988, other Latter-day Saint authors have also promoted their version of the Great Lakes model. These include Duane Aston, "Return to Cumorah" (1998) and "The Other Side of Cumorah" (2003); Paul Hedengren, "The Land of Lehi" (1995); Phyllis Olive, "Lost Lands of the Book of Mormon" (2000); Ed Goble with Wayne May, "This Land, Zarahemla and the Nephite Nation: Only One Cumorah" (2002); Rodney Meldrum, "DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography" (DVD, 2003) and "Rediscovering the Book of Mormon Remnant through DNA" (2009); and Meldrum with Burce Porter, "Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon & The United States of America" (2009).

Tangentially (unrelated to the strength or weakness of any model) there are some interesting dynamics among some of these authors. Duane Aston was once a supporter of a Mesoamerican model but shifted his focus to the Great Lakes region. Conversely, Ed Goble once believed that Book of Mormon events happened in the Great Lakes vicinity but now leans in favor of a Mesoamerican model.

May, Meldrum, Porter and LDS Travel Agency President Brian Mickelsen were all partners in a Book of Mormon geography group that formed a website and sponsored seminars, but Meldrum eventually left the group for financial reasons. According to Michael De Groote’s Deseret News article, due to disputes in the sharing of profits, Meldrum decided to host his own conference.

"(I)t’s what Rod does for a living,” Porter told the Deseret News, “and everybody has a right to earn a living …”

The quality of arguments for a Great Lakes model varies from proponent to proponent and ranges from scholarly and informed to naïve and uninformed. Common arguments that can be found in the works of several advocates include the following:

1. The word “lake” is never used in the Book of Mormon (other than metaphorically). The word “sea” could easily refer to “lakes” just as the Dead Sea doesn’t denote an actual sea, therefore the Great Lakes could be the Book of Mormon “seas.”

2. The Cumorah of the Book of Mormon is the same hill in New York from which Joseph retrieved the plates.

3. The Book of Mormon contains prophecies about the promised land that have been fulfilled (or are yet to be fulfilled) in — and only in — the United States of America (hence, this would rule out any non-U.S. geographic model).

4. Joseph Smith made several comments which suggest that ancient remains discovered in their vicinity once belonged to Book of Mormon peoples.

5. Joseph Smith and the Doctrine & Covenants refer to the Native Americans in their area as Lamanites.

Some Great-Lake promoters have also claimed the following: 

6. DNA science gives strong indication that some Native Americans — specifically those in one Great Lakes model — are descendants of Middle Eastern nations.

7. Some ancient American artifacts — specifically those known as the "Michigan Relics" — provide powerful evidence that the Bible was known in the pre-Columbian American Northeast.

In the next few issues, I’d like to address the five most common claims that seem to support the Great Lakes model, but in this issue I will address the last two topics on the list: DNA and the "Michigan Relics."

In several earlier articles, I demonstrated that DNA cannot currently (and might never be able to) verify the Book of Mormon. Those who claim otherwise, or who claim that DNA supports their particular geographic model, buttress their claims by cherry-picking scientific quotes and distorting their context while actually rejecting the very science behind DNA research. In a recent review of the topic published by BYU’s Maxwell Institute, Dr. Gregory Smith details why the DNA-proves-the-Book-of-Mormon claim is false.

The "Michigan Relics" are a loose collection of copper, slate and clay pieces discovered in the Hopewell Indian mounds of Michigan from the late 19th century until the 1920s. Many of these relics are inscribed with various Old World (or supposed Old World) texts or with graphics depicting various scenes from the Bible.

The problem is that the relics are all fakes — hoaxes produced, buried, “discovered” and marketed by several men looking for fame and fortune.

After carefully examining the relics, Elder James Talmage (a scientist and apostle) declared them to be blatant forgeries. Several non-LDS scientists have agreed. The "Michigan Relics" do not support the Book of Mormon (or one particular geography), and it is deceptive to suggest that they do.

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