Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Scholars, enthusiasts shed light on Book of Mormon geography models

Published: Monday, Feb. 7 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

As noted last week, most Book of Mormon geographic models have had the misfortune of garnering supporters who are zealous but uninformed. Fortunately, virtually all models have also attracted the thoughts and comments of educated amateur enthusiasts.

While some of these amateurs may not have had professional training in Ancient American studies, archaeology or anthropology, some have had academic training in other fields that contribute to their critical thinking skills and prove useful in Book of Mormon studies. Diane Wirth, for example, has studied Mesoamerican art for over 25 years (often under the tutelage of top Mesoamerican scholars) and has made some valuable contributions to our understanding of Mesoamerican iconography.

Among the more educated LDS amateur enthusiasts who have also made important contributions to the Mesoamerican geographic model we can include Dr. David A. Palmer, Dr. John L. Lund, Dr. Joseph L. Allen and Dr. Lawrence Poulsen.

The late BYU Professor Dr. Sidney Sperry (one of the greatest LDS scholars of the last century) initially believed that Cumorah was located in upstate New York but changed his position upon further study. “It is now my very carefully studied and considered opinion,” he wrote, “that the Hill Cumorah to which Mormon and his people gathered was somewhere in Middle America.”

President Joseph Fielding Smith, an apostle at the time, had written some things that conflicted with Sperry’s view of Cumorah, and Sperry was concerned about contradicting Smith in print. To Sperry’s relief, however, “Elder Smith then lovingly put his arm around his shoulder and said, ‘Sidney, you are as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine. You go ahead and publish it.’”

Dr. Hugh Nibley once made the statement that the Nephite temple structures may have been more modest than typical Central American pyramids and may have been more along the lines of those from the Hopewell tradition in the Great Lakes region. Despite this comparison, Nibley was a supporter of the Mesoamerican geographic model and was pleased when Sidney Sperry came around to the same position.

In several of Dr. Nibley’s books he expressed this belief. “It is our conviction,” he wrote, “that proof of the Book of Mormon does lie in Central America.” And in 2003, he reiterated to his friend Kirk Magleby (one of the founding fathers of FARMS — now BYU’s Maxwell Institute) “that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica with echoes and remnants filtering up into the native cultures of the continental United States.”

In addition to the educated but amateur enthusiasts, we find that the vast majority of all LDS professionals who have training in archaeology, anthropology or ethnohistory seem to favor the general Mesoamerican model. Such LDS professionals include the following individuals:

Brant A. Gardner (MA Anthropology, State University of New York) specializes in Mesoamerican ethnohistory and is the author of the highly acclaimed, six volume work, "Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon."

The late Dr. M. Wells Jakeman (to be discussed more next week) was an archaeologist and has been described as “the father of Book of Mormon archaeology.” He founded the department of archaeology at BYU.

V. Garth Norman (MS Anthropology/Archaeology, BYU) has specialized training in archaeoastronomy as well as Ancient Studies. Norman has done field work in Mesoamerica and is a specialist in the Mesoamerican Civilization-Izapan Culture.

PhD candidate Mark A. Wright (BA, Anthropology UCLA). Wright’s research specialization is Mesoamerican archaeology, and his dissertation focuses specifically on the institution of divine kingship among the ancient Maya civilization.

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