Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: True scholarship vs. wishful thinking

Published: Monday, Jan. 31 2011 5:30 a.m. MST

The last of the limited Book of Mormon geographies I’ll discuss in this series is the Mesomerican model.

For the first 85 years of the church, the accepted geographic model among most Mormons was the hemispheric model — the whole of North and South America. It was also commonly believed (as noted in a previous installment) that Joseph Smith had received revelation that Lehi landed in Chile.

As pointed out in another column, Joseph Smith’s personal speculations, however, include the belief that at least some of the events and primary cities were located in Central America. A few other Latter-day Saints also made comments suggesting that Central America — or Mesoamerica — was the home of much Book of Mormon activity. In 1891, for instance, Elder George Reynolds of the church’s First Council of the Seventy wrote that the Jaredites likely lived in Central America for most of their existence.

Around the turn of the century several new scholars began to take a close look at what the Book of Mormon actually said about its geography, and some began to question the accuracy of the claim that Joseph received a revelation concerning the location of Lehi’s landing. B.H. Roberts, for instance, called it an “alleged revelation.” Roberts went on to note:

“Whereas, if this is not a revelation, the physical description relative to the contour of the lands occupied by the Jaredites and Nephites, that being principally that two large bodies of land were joined by a narrow neck of land — can be found between Mexico and Yucatan with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec between.”

Likewise, sometime before President Joseph F. Smith died in 1918, he said that the Lord had not revealed the location of Lehi’s landing (John Sorenson, "The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book," 20).

From 1917 to 1924, Louis Edward Hills (a student of the Book of Mormon and member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) — now known as the Community of Christ) published his theory that the entire Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica and that the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was the Narrow Neck of Land.

It is unknown how much his writings influenced LDS geographical interpretations, but Mesoamerica grabbed the attention of at least some LDS authors — including West Point graduate and son of Brigham Young, Willard Young. Young had once worked as an engineer in Central America and in 1920 introduced his own geographic model that proposed a limited Mesoamerican geography. This was the first limited model proposed by a Latter-day Saint. Young’s model was followed by other Mesoamerican models that varied slightly on some of the details.

Unfortunately, some Mesoamerican promoters, like promoters of virtually all other geographic models, have mixed strained and even false evidence with useful information to make their model appear more convincing. In a previous installment, for instance, I offered the example of the fraudulent "Michigan Relics" utilized by some Great Lakes promoters. The Mesoamerican proponents have also seen their share of fallacious evidences used to support their position. In most such cases these proponents are simply uninformed.

Some Latter-day Saints, for example, have claimed there were once “white” Indians and that there are still tribes of white Indians who must, therefore, be descendants of the Nephites.

Other Latter-day Saints — even very educated Latter-day Saints — have pointed to artwork such as the so-called “Tree of Life Stone” and have claimed that it provides proof for the Book of Mormon. Neither one of these claims are currently backed by the latest scholarly research.

For years the legends of a “white bearded God” who visited the ancient Americans has fascinated numerous Mormons who have pointed to these legends as proof that, as depicted in the Book of Mormon, Christ visited the Americas. This case may not be as solid as is claimed, however. (Each of these topics will be dealt with more in later installments).

An ancient American book by now-deceased author Thomas Stuart Ferguson exhibited the uninformed exuberance that caused him to naively misinterpret the data. Ferguson’s zeal and untrained approach caused him to make unwarranted assumptions that eventually damaged his testimony (more on this in a later issue).

Books by Dewey Farnsworth and the popular Jack West books and firesides all claimed to offer ancient Mesoamerican “proof” for the Book of Mormon, but they relied heavily on misinformation, logical inconsistencies and misrepresentation. Like some of the proponents of other Book of Mormon models, they may have done more harm than good.

As LDS anthropologist John L. Sorenson complained, such a naive approach suggests that “the underlying complexity and subtlety of the Book of Mormon are masked by a pseudo-scholarship to which everything is simple. This … encourages critics … to set up a straw-man Book of Mormon, to attack based on what Mormons have said about it instead of what it says itself.”

The case for the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient text should only be supported by rigorous scholarship and not by wishful thinking and the misuse of scholarly data.

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