SANDY, Utah — Matthew Roper's presentation on the topic of "Joseph Smith and the Question of Book of Mormon Geography" was well-researched and insightful. Hundreds of people were there and engaged in his remarks.
Roper was the last speaker Thursday at the 12th Annual Mormon Apologetics Conference (FAIR).
Roper, a resident scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU, based his 90-minute remarks on four subjects:
1. Terminology — do terms used by Joseph Smith in his descriptions of the Book of Mormon, such as "this land," "this continent," or "this country," indicate, as some have suggested, any specific American setting for the Book of Mormon?
2. Did Joseph Smith's revelations include details about the geography of the Book of Mormon?
3. Regarding a handful of articles published under the editorship of Joseph Smith in the Times and Seasons regarding Central American discoveries — did Joseph Smith write these articles or were they written by others?
4. Might recent wordprinting studies offer a solution to the question of authorship?
Terminology used by the Prophet Joseph, such as "land," "continent," or "country," may not have meant a specific portion of land, like North America or South America, Roper said. Using examples, the scholar said "usage shows that the words … were used in reference to all the Americas and not a limited location."
While Roper acknowledged Joseph received revelations about many things regarding the Book of Mormon, "the geography of the Book of Mormon narrative was not one of them." He used examples from the writings of Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph's mother, the naming of cities Zarahemla and Manti in Iowa and Missouri, the captivating story of discovering the bones of Zelph and references to the "Plains of the Nephites" as evidence of his claim.
"All of the Americas in North, Central, and South America were part of the land of promise to Lehi's seed; consequently, Joseph Smith's reference to the mounds, plains, bones of the Nephites do not explain to us where in the Americas those events described by Mormon took place," Roper said.
Roper talked about the 1841 publication of "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan" by John L. Stephens, which described for the first time many ruins found in Mesoamerica, which many claimed offered Book of Mormon evidence. A copy eventually found its way to Joseph, who found it interesting. This led to five articles in the Times and Seasons.
While differing opinions say otherwise, Roper said the Prophet was very interested in Central American discoveries because they supported the claims of the Book of Mormon.
Working with BYU statistician Paul Fields, Roper has been attempting to discover the author of three of five Times and Seasons articles that discussed Central American discoveries by using wordprint analysis methods. Analyzing 1,000-word blocks from articles by Joseph, John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, as well as the unsigned articles, tests were done and results led Roper to believe Joseph Smith was the likely author.
Summarizing his remarks, Roper said there was no indication that Joseph Smith ever sought to give a detailed geographical model for the Saints.
"The preponderance of evidence does not support the claim that Joseph Smith's revelations included details about Book of Mormon geography, but rather suggested that this, as with many other questions, was an issue where Joseph Smith, as time allowed him, to give it attention, followed the dictates of his own judgment and expressed his own thinking," Roper said.
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