How did Joseph fare in telling this fantastic news to the world? In his own words, Joseph found himself thinking of Paul in front of king Agrippa when he related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light and heard a voice. There were few that believed him. They called Paul dishonest, mad, and he was ridiculed and reviled. But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he knew, and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise.
Joseph was treated much the same way. As he said, “I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.”
Both Paul and Joseph Smith found themselves trying to express a different view than that held by the vast majority of people. Both knew they were right, but both found rejection on the right and on the left—people, it seems, are at their worst when their views are challenged, especially if that challenge in any way shows they are wrong in their opinions and beliefs. Some, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, whose position among the people was that of religious leadership and important tenets, found themselves and their future standing at stake; in Joseph’s time, pastors and ministers found their following at stake, thus their incomes and careers.
It has forever been the same. Once an idea gets into the public conscious (conscience collective) it evolves into “the answer,” “the standard,” “the truth.”
At which time few, if any, ever check that “answer” against more, new, modern, or greater knowledge that is continually coming forth in all fields. Somewhere along the line, early Church members, eager to find some verification or validation of the Book of Mormon, were ever latching onto new information about the Land of Promise.
The so-called Mesoamerican Tree of Life stone from the site of Izapa, Mexico, that M. Wells Jakeman claimed was an ancient carving of Lehi’s dreamWhen my wife and I were first married, the Tree of Life stone of Izapa was a big thing—every LDS family in the Ward and area had to have a copy of the plaster image that was selling like hotcakes where we lived. The fact that it proved later to be fraudulent, or at least had nothing to do with Lehi, seems to have made no difference to so many who still cling to its “claimed” authenticity--especially the Mesoamericanists.
Left: John Lloyd Stephens, the first non-cleric to suggest that the ancient Maya glyphs and carvings were the actual writing by the people that lived there; Right: Frederick Catherwood. The two met in Belize City (in Honduras at the time) where they visited Copan togetherLikewise, in the early days of the Church, when Joseph Smith was given a copy of the book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, by John L. Stephens in 1841 via Wilford Woodruff who received it from John Milton Bernhisel (John Martin Bernheisel), a physician and close friend and companion to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, who was living in New York at the time, and later member of the Council of Fifty organized by Joseph Smith, as well as the original delegate of the Utah Territory in the U.S. House of Representatives (1851-59, 1861-63). This work included extensive and very detailed drawings by Frederick Catherwood of the Mayan ruins, and Joseph’s reaction was as shown in an article in Times & Seasons, June 25, 1842, under the title of “American antiquities—More Proofs of the Book of Mormon”:
“We feel great pleasure in laying before our readers the following interesting account of the Antiquities of Central America, which have been discovered by two eminent travelers who have spent considerable labor, to bring to light the remains of ancient buildings, architecture & cities, which prove beyond controversy that, on this vast continent, once flourished a mighty people, skilled in the arts and sciences, and whose splendor would not be eclipsed by any of the nations of Antiquity—a people once high and exalted in the scale of intelligence, but now like their ancient buildings, fallen into ruins” (Times and Seasons 2, no. 16, June 15, 1841, 440. “This vast continent” refers to the Western continent—or all the territories of North America, Central America, and South America). Also note that Joseph's comment was rather generic, i.e., "proof that on this vast continent once flourished a mighty people" etc.
Catherwood’s drawings showed a highly advanced civilization living in the Western Hemisphere of whom no one knew anything about centuries before ColumbusHow exciting that must have been for Joseph and members of the Church to see evidence of the Book of Mormon. The ruins Catherwood drew so obviously showed the past existence of a people far beyond anything ever thought of before in the Western Hemisphere. Think of it—Joseph and early Church members, with the new Book of Mormon in hand, were trying to convince everyone that there had been an advanced society living in the Western Hemisphere long before Columbus, and here, in distinct and beautiful drawings, Catherwood was showing the world that Joseph and the Church were correct in there having been such an advanced society living in the Americas. Those drawings, to them, validated all they had been preaching!
To us today, this might not seem like much, but it goes along with archaeologists finding engaved writing on metal plates (including gold plates) dating back to the time of Lehi throughout Mesopotamia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. It was an astounding discovery and stopped the critics from being ”nay-sayhers” about Lehi sailing to America.
The point at the time with Joseph and the others was not where in the Western Hemisphere the ruins were located, but that they existed!
We also need to keep in mind that to Joseph Smith, and all Americans at the time, the American Continent, or “this” continent referred to the Americas—that is, what we know as North and South America today existed as one continent clear up to around the time of World War II, when American newspapers and public officials began calling North America a separate continent. Before that time, there was really only two continents to most people, i.e., Asia (or the eastern continent) and America (the western continent). As we have reported here on numerous occasions, this is not speculation or an opinion, and can easily be verified by any early 20th century atlas, history, or geography on the subject. In fact, even today, there are numerous countries that still call North and South America one continent, including most of Latin America.
When I was in Junior High School right after World War II the subject of Geography (which I loved) was replaced with a new subject called Social Studies, which included geography, and it was at this time that the schools were teaching young teens (8th grade) of the change in continental structure, or number of continents. In fact, Joseph Smith said: "He [Moroni] said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang” and at the time in world geography, “this continent” meant the “American Continent,” which meant both North and South America.
(See the next post, “The Dominance of Mesoamerican Theory - Part II,” for more information about how Mesoamerican theories of the Land of Promise dominate church attitudes and members’ beliefs)