Thursday, July 18, 2019

What Matches the Scriptural Account? – Part I

At the time of the publication of The Book of Mormon it was immediately presented as a religious history. Both internal and external documentation left little room classifying it as literary invention. That meant that history and geography was of huge importance. In addition, critics of the work were quick to realize when the Book was published, that Joseph Smith, an uneducated young man who could barely string together two written sentences, was not the author, but a far more educated individual had to have been responsible.
Members, at the same time, began to suggest areas where the Book of Mormon took place as theories began to build around the subject. This led to more difficulties than helps, as so intent on placing the Land of promise in a certain area, these theorists found themselves fudging location connections not suggested by Mormon and often to the opposite meaning.
    While initially, descendants of Book of Mormon people may have become dispersed throughout the Americas even though the geographical setting for events described in the book was likely limited in scope. It wasn’t so much that these early members were convinced a certain area was the location, but that there were actually proofs in the Western Hemisphere that supported the Book of Mormon and the early history of an advanced civilization described within the book.
    This initially was considered to be that North America was the Land Northward, South America the Land Southward, and Central America the narrow neck in between. Unfortunately, when some of the dust settled, scholars began to wade into the discussion, showing that the language in the Book of Mormon did not provide for such a large area and the idea of the “Limited Geography Theory” came about, mostly surrounding the Mesocamerican area of Central America.
    When Joseph Smith first heard about the many ruins in that area, from a book provided him as a gift from John Bernhisel entitled Incidents of Travel of Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, by John Lloyd Stephens, which included numerous hand drawn pictures of the ruins encountered there by Frederick Catherwood.
Stephens (left) and Catherwood covered a lot of ground in their travels through Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Chiapas, Mexico and Yucatan. Joseph and others of the early Church were enthralled to have shown to them that an ancient, advanced civilization had once existed in the Americas, as the Book of Mormon indicated. This was proof to Joseph Smith, not that Central America was the location, but that such a civilization once existed in the Americas.
    In fact, at the time, Stephens book was widely praised in American newspapers for their interesting description of pre-Columbian ruins and their excellent illustrations, which pointed to a level of civilization in the region previously unknown or even considered by most Americans. The two men returned to northern Yucatan in 1841 for a second expedition, described in another publication, Incidents of Travels in Yucatan, published in 1843 (John L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, 2 vols, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1843).
    The following year Catherwood published his own work, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, which included twenty-five hand-colored lithographs interspersed wiht his commentary (F. Catherwood, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Bartlett and Welford, New York, 1844).
    As stated, the books were enthusiastically received by American readers, including Latter-day Saints. Even before they were able to read the book, missionaries were citing reports of the travelers’ lectures in New York City as evidence for and to repudiate criticism of, the Book of Mormon. However, Joseph Smith evidently never considered that the question of Book of Mormon geography was settled by revelation, and that those terms, as applied to the Book of Mormon, do not reflect a specialized usage, but refer to the land, continent, and country of America, meaning North and South America, not only the United States (Matthew Roper, “Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 15‒85; Roper, “Losing the Remnant: The New Exclusivist ‘Movement’ and the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 87‒124; Roper, “The Treason of the Geographers: Mythical Mesoamerican Conspiracy and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 16 (2015).
Erastus Snow (left) in November, 1840, rebuked a critic who had insisted that there was no evidence of pre ‌Columbian writing in the Americas, saying: “Here is a specimen of your consummate ignorance of American Antiquities... Nearly all the principal papers of this country have of late published the results of the researches of Messrs. Stephens and Catherwood, in Central America. On the river [Page 211] Montagua, Monuments and Statues in abundance were found, many of which are covered with writings, and yet you say there are no proofs that the science of writing was ever known here. The system of Logic by which you arrive at your conclusion must be peculiar to yourself” (Eurastus Snow’s Reply to the Self-Styled Philanthropist, of Chester County, Philadelphia, 1840), pp2‒3).
    The June 15, 1841, issue of the Times and Seasons reprinted another article from the New York Weekly Herald reporting the substance of the travelers’ lectures. The Nauvoo editor who introduced the article thought the report “proved beyond controversy that, on this vast continent, once flourished a mighty people, skilled in the arts and sciences” (“American Antiquities—More Proofs of the Book of Mormon,” Times and Seasons 2/16, 15 June, 1841, p440. At the time, Don Carlos Smith and Robert B. Thompson, were editors).
    On November 16, 1841, Joseph Smith wrote to Hershel Bernhisel, thanking him for the gift of Stephens books, saying “I received your kind present by the hand of Er [Elder] Woodruff & feel myself under many obligations for this mark of your esteem & friendship which to me is the more [Page 213] interesting as it unfolds & develops many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon; I have read the volumes with the greatest interest & pleasure & must say that of all histories that have been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country it is the most correct luminous & comprehensive” (Joseph Smith letter to John Bernhisel, November 16, 1841, in Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, p533).
Mesoamerica runs east and west, not north and south, thus these theorists must claim that the sea to the north is the Eat Sea, and the sea to the south is the West Sea

From the beginning, the Mesoamerican theory had an unsurmountable difficulty in matching the land Mormon described (Alma 22:27-34). While Mormon’s description shows a north to south land arrangement, Mesoamerica is set on an east to west land arrangement. Even if that was overlooked, the Mesoamerican theory shows only two seas, the Sea West (in the north) and the Sea East (in the south), but Mormon describes four seas (East and West Alma 22:27; North and South in Helaman 3:8).
    In addition, the same is true with the North American-Great Lakes theory—the scriptural record shows that the Land of Bountiful is north of the Land of Zarahemla, but their land arrangement has the Land of Zarahemla, to the west of the Land of Bountiful. In addition, their land arrangement has the Land of Zarahemla bordering the West Sea and not the East Sea; however, Mormon has the land bordering the West Sea and not the east (Alma 22:33).
    Zarahemla; however, Mormon tells us the Land of Desolation is north of the Land of Bountiful and only borders on that land. In addition, they have the narrow strip of wilderness running from southwest Pennsylvania to southern Illinois, in neither case does it border the Sea East or the Sea West; however, Mormon tells us that this strip of land “ran from the sea east even to the  sea west” (Alma 22:27). Some might say that such information is superfluous to the correctness of the Book of Mormon.
    Be that as it may, the problem is, once someone commits to a land for their Land of Promise, they do not show that it fits Mormon’s description. They merely write about those points in general terms, or provide a long, convoluted rationale why they do match. This leads to critics using many of these errors against the Church itself and the historicity of the Book of Mormon, when it is not the book itself that is in question, only the theory of the one promoting a personal viewpoint.
    However, at no time did Joseph Smith try to clarify a specific location for the Jaredite and Nephite lands, other than to say it was “on this continent,” a statement at the time meaning both North and South America since this entire Western Hemisphere was once considered a single continent and remained as such until around World War II.
(See the next post, “What Matches the Scriptural Account? – Part II,” for a continuation of this article and the comparison between the various theories and the descriptions of Mormon)

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