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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: The errors of Holley's map

Published: Monday, Nov. 29 2010 4:30 a.m. MST

The Book of Mormon geographic model to gain the most popularity in recent years is the Great Lakes model.

Like other models, this model has several variations (all in the Northeastern United States) depending on the advocate.

As near as I can tell, the first Great Lakes model was proposed in 1983 by Vernal Holley. Holley, an LDS critic, did not attempt to find the location for Book of Mormon events but rather tried to show that Joseph Smith stole the theme and much of the content of the Book of Mormon from an unpublished novel written by the Reverend Solomon Spaulding.

The Spaulding theory will be discussed in a future installment. For now, however, it’s noteworthy to discuss a few things about Holley’s map as well as his accusations. This will be our first of several discussions on the Great Lakes model.

According to Holley’s geographical model — a limited geography — Lake Ontario was the Book of Mormon’s East Sea and Lake Erie was the West Sea, with the Buffalo-Niagara Falls-Saint Catharines region between the two lakes as the “narrow neck” of land.

Holley’s map has many problems, including blatant errors for the location of Book of Mormon cities. For example, Holley places the city of Morianton near the West Sea while the Book of Mormon tells us it was near the city of Lehi by the eastern seashore (Alma 50:25).

While an internal map of the Book of Mormon tells us that Alma should be north of Lehi-Nephi, Holley situates it far to the west. As FAIR (and elsewhere L. Ara Norwood) has shown, Holley places many Book of Mormon cities or landmarks in areas that are contradicted by the text.

For some critics, the strength of Holley’s argument comes from the parallels comparing Book of Mormon city names and similar names found in Joseph Smith’s surrounding environment.

According to Holley, there are at least 29 Book of Mormon locations that have modern name parallels from Joseph Smith’s surrounding area. The strongest parallels include (modern names followed by Book of Mormon names): Alma/Alma, Angola/Angola, Boaz/Boaz, Noah Lake/Land of Noah and Oneida/Onidah. Other similar matches include Shiloh/Shilom, Omer/Omner and Morin/Moron. Name-parallels that stretch credulity include Ripple Lake/Waters of Ripliancum, Monroe/Moroni and Jacobsburg/Jacobugath.

Some critics argue that even if Joseph didn’t plagiarize Spaulding, Holley’s list of Book of Mormon name parallels shows that Joseph drew upon his environment when creating the Book of Mormon.

First, it must be pointed out that the wider the net, the better the chances that parallel names will be found. Holley’s map includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, as well as Ontario and Quebec, Canada, — almost 200,000 square miles.

Second, a large percent of the names used in Holley’s comparison are names mentioned infrequently in the Book of Mormon (sometimes only once in the book). Cities such as Zarahemla and Bountiful are conspicuously missing from Holley’s map. This suggests that Holley was simply mining for any conceivable parallel.

Third, what are the chances Joseph Smith was familiar with some of the small and obscure towns listed by Holley? Jacobsburg, Ohio, for example, doesn’t show up in an 1822 map of Ohio, and Ripple Lake (Ontario) is so small that it’s difficult to locate on modern maps.

Fourth, do these parallel names really suggest influence or just parallelomania? One critic recently claimed that “there is no other place on the American Continent where you will find as many place name matches as you will find in Joseph’s backyard” and that “the odds are probably around 1 in 10 million that this is not chance or coincidence.”

Using the power of the Web, I took a few minutes to examine this claim. I focused on the state of Virginia and border towns in North Carolina (approximately 42,000 square miles). In a matter of minutes I found 30 fascinating parallel names. The strongest include Alma/Alma, Boaz/Boaz,  Calno/Calno, Edom/Edom, Siddon/Sidon. Other possibilities include Nahor/Nehor, Achash/Akish, Joshua Falls/Land of Joshua, Mt. Herman/Hermounts, Moran/Moron and more.

When I expanded the area of coverage I found even more parallels. Linguistic coincidence, or homophony, can, and does occur all the time. Even the Malaysian Book of Mormon map lists nine parallels to Book of Mormon cities.

When we compare Holley’s parallels to something like the Book of Mormon NHM/Nahom parallel as discussed in a previous issue, the difference becomes striking. NHM is more than just a name; it’s the name of an actual seventh-sixth century B.C. location where outsiders were buried along the frankincense trail from which an eastward departure led to the only fertile area on the Southern Arabian coast.

Such interlocking complex parallels are wholly unlike the homophonic coincidences we find in Holley’s map.

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