The discussion on Book of Mormon geography was getting heated. Scholars gathered in Provo, Utah, to discuss their theories about where the events described in the Book of Mormon took place. Some placed the Nephite capital city Zarahemla in Mesoamerica, others in South America. Others argued for a setting in the American heartland.
The president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attended the two-day Book of Mormon convention. Although he found the discussion interesting, he was obviously concerned that people were getting a little too worked up about their geographic theories. He decided to intervene.
The Book of Mormon geography conference was held at Brigham Young Academy on May 23-24, 1903. But the advice President Joseph F. Smith gave at that conference 107 years ago could apply equally to current disputes over Book of Mormon geography.
"President Smith spoke briefly," the Deseret News account summarized, "and expressed the idea that the question of the city (of Zarahemla) was one of interest certainly, but if it could not be located the matter was not of vital importance, and if there were differences of opinion on the question it would not affect the salvation of the people; and he advised against students considering it of such vital importance as the principles of the Gospel."
More recently, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism described how "Church leadership officially and consistently distances itself from issues regarding Book of Mormon geography."
But the lack of an official position hasn't squelched interest. The subject attracts highly trained archaeologists and scholars and informed — and not-so-informed — amateurs and enthusiasts. Books, lectures and even Book of Mormon lands tours abound.
But something is rotten in Zarahemla — wherever it may be.
In the middle of what could be a fun and intellectually exciting pursuit similar to archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann's famous search for the lost city of Troy, there are accusations of disloyalty tantamount to apostasy.
In one corner is the more-established idea of a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon. This theory places the events of the book in a limited geographic setting that is about the same size as ancient Israel. The location is in southern Mexico and Guatemala. The person most often associated with this theory is John L. Sorenson, a retired professor of anthropology at BYU, and the author of "An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon" and a series of articles on Book of Mormon geography that ran in the Ensign magazine in September and October 1984. A new book, tentatively titled "Mormon's Codex," is in the process of being published.
In the other corner is the challenger, a new theory that places Book of Mormon events in a North American "heartland" setting. Like the Mesoamerican theory, it also is limited in area — but not quite as limited. Its symbolic head is Rod L. Meldrum and, more recently, Bruce H. Porter. Meldrum and Porter are the co-authors of the book "Prophecies and Promises," which promotes the heartland setting.
It wouldn't be hard to predict that some friction might come about from competing theories — that healthy sparring would occur with arguments and counter-arguments. But it has gone beyond that.
The source of the animosity comes from the heartland theory's mantra: "Joseph knew."
Joseph Smith made several statements that can be interpreted to have geographic implications. Proponents of a North American setting see these statements as authoritative and based in revelation. Mesoamerican theorists think that Joseph Smith's ideas about geography expanded over time and included approval of at least some connection to Central America.
To the heartlander, Joseph's knowledge about Book of Mormon locations is seen as proof of his divine calling and a testament to his being the chosen translator/expert of the book. Joseph didn't just know; he knew everything. This position, however, leaves little room for other opinions — or for charity.
"The way I look at Joseph Smith's statements is that he either knew or he didn't know. If he knew, he knew by revelation. And if he didn't know, you've got to ask yourself why he said the things that he said," Porter said. "If he didn't know, was he trying to show off? If he really didn't know, why was he telling people?
"My feeling is that Joseph Smith did not lie," Porter said.
If you don't agree with this line of reasoning, by implication, you think that Joseph lied.
"My authority is Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon," Porter said. "Most of your Mesoamerican theorists, their authority is John Sorenson and Matthew Roper. They picked those as their authority at the neglect of Joseph Smith."
Matthew P. Roper, a research scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute Of Religious Scholarship, naturally doesn't like this characterization. "They seem to be trying to elevate a question of lesser importance, Book of Mormon geography, to the level of the doctrines of the church," Roper said. "And even though they give lip service to things like they know the church has not given an official position, they turn around and say, 'All these people are dismissing Joseph Smith.' "
It is somewhat ironic that believing that Joseph did not "know" also supports Joseph as a prophet. The more Joseph's assumptions about Book of Mormon geography prove to be wrong, the greater a testimony that he did not write the book himself. "We assume," Roper said, "that since Joseph Smith was the translator of the Book of Mormon, and that it was translated by the gift and power of God, that he would know everything about the book that an author would. I would submit that the two are not the same thing. I could translate the 'Wars of Caesar' and not know anything about ancient Gaul or the different tribes."
When Meldrum's theories first became popularized through firesides and a DVD he produced, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) took notice and responded with gusto.
"The way he said things, they attack that more than they attack the evidence that he presented," Porter said.
Scott Gordon, president of FAIR, would not disagree. "We view this as a steadying-of-the-ark issue. We really don't care where he picks for his theory on where the Book of Mormon can take place," Gordon said. "What we care about that he is implying that the church is not following the teachings of Joseph Smith. Which means the church leadership, the prophet — everything is not following. And we think that is a very, very dangerous position."
"They are getting really worried because they are seeing this is becoming a movement. That's their words," Meldrum said. "They are just saying it's a movement because they are getting a lot of flak from people who are seeing the DVD and the information and thinking, 'You know what, this makes a lot of sense.' "
But supporters also see the heartland theory as an inspired movement that will transform the LDS Church: "(V)ery few people out there fully grasp the magnitude of this movement and the powerful influence that it is having and the sweeping nature of its message," wrote one prominent supporter. "It will sweep the church and most LDS will not even understand what happened until it's past. … Time is our friend."
A movement — about geography?
Historian Ronald O. Barney has seen similar attitudes in some people supporting Mesoamerica. One person described a particular Mesoamerican book as "life-transforming" and that the book "changed the way I think about everything."
"People are hanging their faith on evidence of Book of Mormon peoples," Barney said.
"I just think that this way of thinking about our religion is such a waste of time," Barney said, "It almost suggests we don't trust the Holy Ghost. Not only are we worried that he won't reveal to people the truthfulness of the book, but we want to augment it — even if we have to bend and distort — so that there can be no mistake about its truthfulness."
Meldrum said he doesn't hang his testimony on the heartland theory.
"I don't know that this geography is true. I've said that many times and I want to make sure that that's clear,” Meldrum said with a laugh.
If a revelation came tomorrow that declared where the Book of Mormon took place, Meldrum said he would accept it.
John L. Sorenson stands by the Mesoamerican theory, but also the Prophet.
"(Geography) wasn't very important to him and he didn't know much about it," Sorenson said. "Joseph knew what he knew — and what he knew was far more important than geography."
Joseph's nephew, President Joseph F. Smith, would probably agree.
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company