Many Mormon apologists advance the theory that the peoples described in the Book of Mormon lived in a relatively small area of Mesoamerica. This theory contrasts with the idea, apparently held by most Latter-day Saints past and present, that the Book of Mormon events spanned North, South, and Central America, with North America being the “land northward” described in the Book of Mormon, South America being the “land southward,” and the isthmus of Panama comprising the “narrow neck of land” dividing the two. The two theories are referred to as the “Limited Geography Theory” or “LGT” and the “Hemispheric Geography Theory” or “HGT,” respectively. Apologists defending the LGT argue that the HGT has never been official doctrine and can not be connected to Joseph Smith. See here, for example. Some even are so bold as to suggest that Joseph Smith believed in and taught the LGT and that the mistakes of others led to the ascendancy of the HGT as the majority view among Latter-day Saints. See here, for example.
The apologists assert that:
1. The Church has never endorsed any official “map” of the Book of Mormon and statements have been made by General Authorities, including Joseph Smith, in support of both theories.
2. GA statements that support the HGT are either based on unreliable sources or are personal opinions that do not command the same level of respect as “prophetic” statements.
3. The HGT does not satisfactorily coincide with the Book of Mormon text, which demands an LGT of some sort (the Mesoamerican location being the best candidate so far).
4. Scholars and lay members of the Church have been the principal proponents of the LGT.
The apologists would have us believe that it was careful examination of the Book of Mormon text and real-world discoveries that led to the development of the LGT. In truth, the LGT has gained traction simply as a result of the fact that the HGT has been thoroughly repudiated by overwhelming scientific evidence (biological, archaeological, and anthropological). Such evidence has forced the apologists to adopt the LGT as the only possible geographical model for the Book of Mormon. (Some question whether the term “theory” should be used at all, since the idea is not based on evidence—it is purely speculative—and is reactionary in nature).
It is true that the church has not endorsed a specific official map of the Book of Mormon. But it is disingenuous for apologists to use that fact in support of the notion that the church leaders have not overwhelmingly supported a hemispheric model for Book of Mormon geography. It is also true that, for a variety of reasons, the HGT does not adequately support Book of Mormon historicity. And it’s true that the LGT has been advanced by scholars and academics. But what have the General Authorities—the “prophets, seers, and revelators”—said about the subject? And does it agree with what the apologists say?
GA Statements on the Hemispheric Model for BOM Geography:
“During our travels we visited several of the mounds which had been thrown up by the ancient inhabitants of this country--Nephites, Lamanites, etc., and this morning I went up on a high mound, near the river . . . .
On the top of the mound were stones which presented the appearance of three altars having been erected one above the other, according to the ancient order; and the remains of bones were strewn over the surface of the ground. The brethren procured a shovel and a hoe, and removing the earth to the depth of about one foot, discovered the skeleton of a man, almost entire, and between his ribs the stone point of a Lamanitish arrow, which evidently produced his death. Elder Burr Riggs retained the arrow. The contemplation of the scenery around us produced peculiar sensations in our bosoms; and subsequently the visions of the past being opened to my understanding by the Spirit of the Almighty, I discovered that the person whose skeleton was before us was a white Lamanite, a large, thick-set man, and a man of God. His name was Zelph. He was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea to the Rocky mountains. The curse was taken from Zelph, or, at least, in part--one of his thigh bones was broken by a stone flung from a sling, while in battle, years before his death. He was killed in battle by the arrow found among his ribs, during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites.” Joseph Smith, History of the Church 2:79-80).
“[we spent the time] wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionaly the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as proof of its divine authenticity” Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, 4 June 1834, in Dean Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, rev. ed. 2002 at 345–46.
Joseph Smith’s mother asserted that “Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.” Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:296.
In May 1838 Joseph conferred the name Tower Hill on a site in Missouri, “in
consequence of the remains of an old Nephitish Alter and Tower” that stood
there Joseph Smith 1989, 184).
“You are acquainted with the mail road from Palmyra, Wayne Co. to Canandaigua, Ontario Co. N. Y. and also, as you pass from the former to the latter place, before arriving at the little village of Manchester, say from three to four, or about four miles from Palmyra, you pass a large hill on the east side of the road. . . .
At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. . . . here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.
By turning to the 529th and 530th pages of the book of Mormon you will read Mormon's account of the last great struggle of his people, as they were encamped round this hill Cumorah. . . .
This hill, by the Jaredites, was called Ramah: by it, or around it, pitched the famous army of Coriantumr their tents. Coriantumr was the last king of the Jaredites. . . . In this same spot, in full view from the top of this same hill, one may gaze with astonishment upon the ground which was twice covered with the dead and dying of our fellowmen.” Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate, July 1835.
William W. Phelps:
“Cumorah, the artificial hill of north America, is well calculated to stand in this generation, as a monument of marvelous works and wonders. Around that mount died millions of the Jaredits . . . . In that day, her inhabitants spread from sea to sea . . . . There, too, fell the Nephites” Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate, Nov. 1835.
“What the design of our heavenly Father was or is, as to these vast prairies of the far west, I know no further than we have revelation. The Book of Mormon terms them the land of desolation” Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate, July 1836.
“For three hundred years the people on the continent of North and South America were benefited by the work of the Savior in organizing his Church and revealing every principle and ordinance calculated to assist them back into the presence of God. Is not that good?” Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, May 29, 1870, at 174-175.
“We have also stated when, and by whom they [the Gold Plates] were written; that they contain the history of nearly one-half of the globe, from the earliest ages after the flood, until the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era.” Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records.
“After the destruction of the Jaredites, the Lord brought two other colonies to people this land. One colony landed a few hundred miles north of the Isthmus on the western coast; the other landed on the coast of Chili, upwards of two thousand miles south of them. The latter were called the Nephites and Lamanites. It was some four or five centuries after these two colonies came from Jerusalem and occupied the country before they amalgamated. A little over one century before Christ the Nephites united with the Zarahemlaites in the northern portions of South America, and were called Nephites and became a powerful nation. The country was called the land Bountiful, and included within the land of Zarahemla. But to go back to their early history. Shortly after the Nephite colony was brought by the power of God, and landed on the western coast of South America, in the country we call Chili, there was a great divison among them. The righteous were threatened by the wicked who sought to destroy them. The Lord warned Nephi, their leader, to flee from among the Lamanites, to depart for the safety of himself and his family and those that believed in the revelations of God. Nephi and the righteous separated themselves from the Lamanites and traveled about eighteen hundred miles north until they came to the head waters of what we term the Amazon river. There Nephi located his little colony in the country supposed to be Ecuador, a very high region, many large and elevated mountains being in that region.” Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses Vol. 12, December 27, 1868 at 342.
“He [Christ] also chose twelve disciples to administer his Gospel on this land and for the ministration of the Holy Ghost. The twelve disciples went forth and preached the Gospel, commencing in South America, and then went into North America, until all the people both in North and South America were converted, receiving the principles of the Gospel‹namely, baptism, and the laying on of hands, and all the other principles as preached in our day. About two centuries after this, the Nephites fell into wickedness: the Lamanites, who dwelt in the southern portion of South America, also apostatized; and they began to wage war with the Nephites, who were their enemies; and being exceedingly strong they drove all the Nephites out of South America and followed them with their armies up into the north country, and finally overpowered them. They were gathered together south of the great lakes in the country which we term New York.” Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses Volume 14, February 19, 1871.
“While on our travels we visited many of the mounds which were flung up by the ancient inhabitants of this continent probably by the Nephites & Lamanites we visited one of those Mounds and several of the brethren dug into it and took from it the bones of a man Brother Joseph had a vision respecting the person he said he was a white Lamanite the curs was taken from him or at least in part he was killed in battle with an arrow the arrow was found among his ribs, one of his thigh bones was broken this was done by a stone flung from a sling in battle years before his death his name was Zelph Some of his bones were brought into the camp and the thigh bone which was broken was put into my wagon and I carried it to Missouri Zelph was a large thick set man and a man of God he was a warrior under the great prophet that was known from the Hill Cumorah to the Rocky mountains. The above knowledge Joseph received in a vision. Wilford Woodruff, Journal, 1934.
James E. Talmage:
“The Nephites advanced in the arts of civilization, built large cities, and established prosperous commonwealths; yet they often fell into transgression, and the Lord chastened them by permitting their hereditary enemies to be victorious. It is traditionally believed that they spread northward, occupying a considerable area in Central America, and then expanded eastward and northward over part of what is now the United States of America. The Lamanites, while increasing in numbers, fell under the curse of divine displeasure; they became dark in skin and benighted in spirit, forgot the God of their fathers, lived a wild nomadic life, and degenerated into the fallen state in which the American Indians — their lineal descendants — were found by those who rediscovered the western continent in later times.
The final struggles between Nephites and Lamanites were waged in the vicinity of the Hill Cumorah, in what is now the State of New York, resulting in the destruction of the Nephites as a nation, about 400 A.D.” James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith, 1984 ed., at 235-236 (emphasis added).
Orson F. Whitney:
“[F]or two hundred years peace spread her white wings over the great continents of North and South America, and the entire people, Nephites and Lamanites, were converted unto Christ, were brethren and sisters, and all socially equal.” Orson F. Whitney, “Zion and Her Redemption,” Collected Discourses Vol. 1.
Elder George F. Richards:
“Afterwards, Mulek, with a colony from Jerusalem came to this country. These colonies were located in the southern part of North America, in Central America, and in the northern part of South America. And all this land, as well as that into which they migrated to the north and to the south was designated by the Lord as the land of promise” Conference Report, October 1922, at 81.
Joseph Fielding Smith:
“Within recent years there has arisen among certain students of the Book of Mormon a theory to the effect that within the period covered by the Book of Mormon, the Nephites and Lamanites were confined almost within the borders of the territory comprising Central America and the southern portion of Mexico; the Isthmus of Tehuantepec probably being the "narrow neck" of land spoken of in the Book of Mormon rather than the Isthmus of Panama...This modernistic theory of necessity, in order to be consistent, must place the waters of Ripliancum and the Hill Cumorah some place within the restricted territory of Central America, notwithstanding the teachings of the Church to the contrary for upwards of 100 years. . . . In the light of revelation it is absurd for anyone to maintain that the Nephites and Lamanites did not possess this northern land... In the face of this evidence coming from the Prophet Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, we cannot say that the Nephites and Lamanites did not possess the territory of the United States and that the Hill Cumorah is in Central America.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Deseret News, Church Section, Feb. 27, 1954, at 2-3.
N. Eldon Tanner:
“Having so recently returned from the great countries of South America, and having partaken of the spirit and faith of the devoted and dedicated Saints there, and sensing that I was in Book of Mormon land, I feel constrained to talk about the Book of Mormon, which contains a history of the early inhabitants of the American continents.” N. Eldon Tanner, “Christ in America,” Ensign, May 1975, at 34.
Spencer W. Kimball:
“With pride I tell those who come to my office that a Lamanite is a descendant of one Lehi who left Jerusalem six hundred years before Christ and with his family crossed the mighty deep and landed in America. And Lehi and his family became the ancestors of all of the Indian and Mestizo tribes in North and South and Central America and in the islands of the sea, for in the middle of their history there were those who left America in ships of their making and went to the islands of the sea. [...] Now the Lamanites number about sixty million; they are in all of the states of America from Tierra del Fuego all the way up to Point Barrows, and they are in nearly all the islands of the sea from Hawaii south to southern New Zealand. The Church is deeply interested in all Lamanites because of these revelations and because of this great Book of Mormon, their history that was written on plates of gold and deposited in the hill.” Spencer W. Kimball, “Of Royal Blood,” Ensign, July 1971.
“This process of redeeming the Lamanite people has been far from easy, especially for the Lamanites themselves. For a thousand years after the closing of the Book of Mormon record, these people wandered in spiritual darkness and were scattered upon the American continents and the isles of the sea. They lost their written language, their high culture, and, worst of all, their knowledge of the living God and his work. Faith was replaced by fear, rich language by crippled dialects, and an understanding of God and his ways by idolatry, even human sacrifice. Since the coming of the white man to the Americas, they have been driven mercilessly, killed, and degraded. When Columbus came, these descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples and those with whom they had mixed numbered in the millions and covered the islands of the Pacific and the Americas from Point Barrow to Tierra del Fuego. But the conquerors found a prey, and in the land southward they robbed and despoiled and slaughtered in the name of gold and silver. In the land northward the 400-year “Battle of America” drove the tribal nations, much reduced in numbers, into the far corners of desolate lands.” Spencer W. Kimball, “First Presidency Message: Our Paths Have Met Again,” Ensign, December 1975, at 2.
I have listed above clear statements from 12 apostles and prophets from Joseph Smith through Spencer W. Kimball that clearly indicate their shared belief in the HGT. Now I have some questions for the apologists.
1. If the LGT is an accurate model for describing Book of Mormon geography, and Joseph Smith understood it and believed it, why are there no explicit statements from Smith to that effect?
2. Can all of Joseph Smith’s statements indicating his belief in the HGT be dismissed as inaccurately recorded?
3. If Joseph Smith did not believe in the LGT but accepted the erroneous HGT, why didn’t he know the proper geography? He apparently knew all sorts of details about life in ancient America that he shared with his family and friends both before and after the Book of Mormon was published. Why would he know all of those details but not know something as basic as whether the Nephites and Lamanites lived in a small segment of Central America or occupied the bulk of the western hemisphere?
4. If Joseph Smith knew that the HGT was erroneous, and he really believed in the LGT, where did Oliver Cowdery and William W. Phelps (and others) get the idea that the Book of Mormon described hemispheric events?
5. If Joseph Smith knew that the HGT was erroneous, why did he do nothing to correct the statements that were made in various official church periodicals during his lifetime (including the statements by Cowdery and Phelps noted above).
6. If Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, Orson Pratt, et al. were all mistaken about the accuracy of the HGT, why have later prophets not corrected their erroneous statements?
7. If the prophets and apostles are correct in their support for the HGT, why have the current leaders of the church allowed church-employed scholars and academics to promote the LGT?
8. If the current prophets and apostles believe in the LGT and reject the HGT, why have they made no clear statement to that effect? Given that the traditional view held by both leaders of the church and the majority of church members has been the HGT, isn’t that the de facto position of the church until the prophets and apostles change it?
9. When church scholars and academics differ in their views from the views of the prophets and apostles, are members of the church justified in believing the scholars and academics rather than the prophets and apostles?