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Defending the Faith: Defending the Faith: Dealing with Book of Mormon geography and other secondary issues

Published: Thursday, June 16 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

Many years ago, a very opinionated member of my Southern California ward confided to me that the then-first counselor in the First Presidency was a Communist agent, seeking to lead the president of the church astray.

I was appalled. Not so much at the silly accusation itself, which I never took seriously, but that an active member of the ward in which I'd grown up, whom I knew to be a fervent believer, would permit his political opinions to lead him, on the basis of no real evidence, into speaking evil of a man both of us had sustained as a prophet, seer and revelator.

"I will give you one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom," Joseph Smith taught the Saints in 1839. "It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity: That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives."

To divide the church along political (or ethnic, national, economic, class or gender) lines is the work of the devil, not of God. He is "the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another" (3 Nephi 11:29). He is "the accuser of our brethren" (Revelation 12:9). In fact, the very meaning of the Greek verb "diaballo," from which our English words "diabolical" and "devil" derive, is "to slander" or "to attack."

The Book of Mormon and the New Testament alike warn repeatedly against the danger of factions, and caution us that, when the Saints fall into disunity, they become weak and vulnerable, and the progress of the Kingdom falters.

One of the issues over which I've recently been saddened to see impassioned strife among some members of the church (though not the only one) is Book of Mormon geography. I find it almost unbelievable. Surely this is a secondary issue, at most.

Nothing very important — certainly not our salvation — hangs upon having the precise GPS coordinates of the Jaredite city of Lib. Although an interesting topic for discussion, knowing exactly where the narrative of the Book of Mormon took place is far less momentous than believing that it did, in fact, take place.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll acknowledge that I've given the matter considerable thought and concluded that the Book of Mormon story occurred principally in Mesoamerica. I'm unpersuaded by alternative theories.

But I'm entirely content to worship and serve in a church with people who may disagree. I know someone who's convinced that the Nephites lived in Malaysia. I don't find this notion even remotely probable, but I'm surely not going to read anybody out of the church for it. If he lives the commandments, prays, does his home teaching and attends the temple, he's at least as good a Latter-day Saint as I am, and likely far better.

"Valuable as is the Book of Mormon both in doctrine and history," wrote George Q. Cannon, a member of the First Presidency, in 1890, "yet it is possible to put this sacred volume to uses for which it was never intended, uses which are detrimental rather than advantageous to the cause of truth, and consequently to the work of the Lord. …

"The Book of Mormon is not a geographical primer. It was not written to teach geographical truths. …

"The First Presidency have often been asked to prepare some suggestive map illustrative of Nephite geography, but have never consented to do so. Nor are we acquainted with any of the Twelve Apostles who would undertake such a task. The reason is, that without further information they are not prepared even to suggest. The word of the Lord or the translation of other ancient records is required to clear up many points."

Debates about Book of Mormon geography are perfectly fine. Many, including me, are interested in the topic. But, the Lord commands, "above all things, clothe yourselves with the bond of charity, as with a mantle, which is the bond of perfectness and peace" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:125). "If ye are not one ye are not mine" (D&C 38:27).

Daniel C. Peterson is a native of southern California and received a bachelors degree in Greek and philosophy from BYU. He earned a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA after several years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo. He is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU, the editor of the twice-annual FARMS Review, and the author of several books and numerous articles on Islamic and Latter-day Saint topics. Peterson is also director of outreach for BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He spent eight years on the LDS Church's Gospel Doctrine writing committee and is the founder and manager of MormonScholarsTestify.org.

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