Friday, January 17, 2020

How Can Anyone Defend Mesoamerica as the Land of Promise? – Part I

Where did Lehi land? Perhaps no other question in all of the Book of Mormon has raised so many curious looks, idle comments, and even professional inquiry. From almost the beginning, wildly speculative ideas have confounded the serious approach to determining where Lehi landed. Most people who embark on trying to determine that location have stated one way or another, from printed statements in books they have written to just a thought held in the back of the mind, that if one is going to figure out where the Land of Promise is truly located, then one must use the scriptural record as the basis of that inquiry—which sounds reasonable enough.
    However, few ever give that idea anything more than lip service. They are more interested in stating, supporting or proving a personal opinion, belief, or view, starting with, say, “A limited geography model,” which in their mind immediately eliminates North America and South America—both far too large, and allows them to concentrate on Mesoamerica or Central America, which are much smaller geographical areas, or even Baja California, Florida Peninsula, or Malay Peninsula. 
    Most people’s approach, who seek a geographical setting for the Book of Mormon lands, began with a personal view, belief, or understanding that a specific location (for various reasons) was a certain place and then gone about trying to prove their selection correct. This is when the Book of Mormon comes into play. They take some geographical highlight, such as the narrow neck of land; the size of the land, such as Mesoamerica; a mountain or hill, such as Cumorah; a people, such as the Olmec; an isthmus, such as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; a sea, such as Lake Ontario or Lake Erie; an Ocean, such as the Pacific, or the Atlantic; a wind or current, such as the El Nino, Kuroshio, or Agulhus; a written language, such as Mayan; a name, such as Moroni in the Comoros—then having taken that geographical highlight, they try to find support for it in the scriptural record of the Book of Mormon, even if it means making adjustments to what is written, altering meaning of words, relying on modern comments over the scriptural record, etc.
One of the first, though unresearched, ideas about the location was that North America was the Land Northward, South America was the Land Southward, and Central America was the narrow neck of land in between. However, while that idea persisted among members in general for many years (even as late as the 1950s) few were concerned about that aspect of the scriptural record, concentrating on the doctrines labeled “Another Witness of Christ.”
    In the background, however, were others who took to studying the geography apart from the doctrines, looking for connections and proofs of their locational choices. This led to a rather conclusive and correct understanding that the lands described by Mormon and other ancient writers could not possibly have been that large. Thus began the “Limited Geography Model” thinking.
    Book of Mormon scholars, mostly centering in BYU archaeology and anthropology department, correctly believed that if the Book of Mormon was to realistically be interpreted as an historical document, the events described therein must be limited to an area far smaller than the entire Western Hemisphere. Obviously, when one reads the movement of Moroni’s army back and forth across the landscape, it becomes apparent that Mormon was not describing an entire continent, but a much smaller area between two vast seas.
    Another keynote area of discussion arose and that was over the people who settled in these Book of Mormon lands. Given that the scriptural record clearly describes the Jaredite inhabitants of the New World long before Lehi's arrival, many LDS scholars have long taken a critical view regarding the assumption that no other people were present in the New World at the time of Lehi's arrival.
    In 1927, Janne M. Sjödahl stated that "students of the Book of Mormon should be cautioned against the error of supposing that all the American Indians are the descendants of Lehi, Mulek and their companions,” based on his belief “that the Jaredite population may not have been completely destroyed as the book describes” ("An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon," Deseret News Press, Salt Lake City, 1927).
    In 1938 a church study guide for the Book of Mormon stated that "the Book of Mormon deals only with the history and expansion of three small colonies which came to America, and it does not deny or disprove the possibility of other immigrations, which probably would be unknown to its writers” (William E. Berrett and Milton R. Hunter, A Guide to the Study of the Book of Mormon, Department of Education of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 1938, p48).
Then, in 1952 onward, Hugh Nibley (left) weighed in on his views of the scriptural record, stating that the assumption there were no other people present in the New World at the time of Lehi's arrival might be incorrect, and concluded in 1980 that archaeological evidence, showed that the assumption of an empty New World represented a "simplistic reading" of the Book of Mormon (Book of Mormon and the Ruins: The Main Issues, Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Provo, Utah, 1980).
    As early as 1917, L. E. Hills, of the RLDS Church, proposed a limited Mesoamerican geography for the Book of Mormon in three separate works ("Geography of Mexico and Central America from 2234 B.C. to 421 A.D.", Independence, MO, 1917; and "A Short Work on the Popol Vuh and the Traditional History of the Ancient Americans", Independence, MO, 1918; and "New Light on American Archaeology", Independence, MO, 1924).
   This led to an explosion of studies, works, books, and teaching at BYU. By the middle of the century, most LDS authors (almost all connected to BYU) shared the belief that the Book of Mormon events took place within a limited region in Mesoamerica, and that others were present on the continent at the time of Lehi's arrival.
    This geographical and population model was formally published in the official church magazine, The Ensign, in a two-part series published in September and October 1984, by LDS Anthropologist, John L. Sorenson (“Digging into the Book of Mormon: Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and Its Scripture, Part 1,” Ensign, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). This was followed in 1985 by the Sorenson book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon.
    Sorenson’s book, and almost all of the other work done at BYU and elsewhere regarding the placement of the Land of Promise there filled a growing vacuum regarding where the Book of Mormon geography was located. As has been stated here before, this idea at BYU stems all the way back to 1938 when M. Wells Jakeman graduated from the University of California at Berkeley—having entered archaeology primarily through the door of ancient history, giving him an “historic” or text-related archae­ology orientation—in contrast with those who enter the disci­pline through the door of anthropology and whose orientation is therefore that of “prehistoric” archae­ology.
From the beginning Jakeman (left) was interested in Mayan history and archaeology. In a 1938 paper, he published the first statement of Book of Mormon archaeology in its scientific dimen­sions, the initial theoretical orientation upon which most of the work of subsequent years has been based. And the fact that it was submitted to such a periodical as the Church Section seems to foreshadow a complete dedi­cation on the part of its author to the archaeological study of the scriptural foundations of Mormonism. Such a view is borne out by the following passage: “The ‘authenticity problem’ of the Book of Mor­mon is therefore the foremost problem of future [Maya research]…It is difficult if not impossible to conceive of a scientific problem fraught with greater significance for the modern world…The admittedly paramount scientific and religious signifi­cances which it involves make its undertaking, by both ‘Mormon’ and non-’Mormon’ scientists or agen­cies, a matter of greatest urgency. Further delay on the excuse of unimportance or insufficient data is no longer admissible.”
    This was a ringing challenge, a resounding call to action, both to the archaeological profession and to Latter-day Saints to study Mayan or Mesoamerican archaeology regarding the Book of Mormon. Certainly the men at BYU the “greatest urgency,” and their efforts, together with the efforts of those who have followed, have led to a substantial amount of work in Mesoamerica over the past 32 years.
    Speaking of other people in the land when Lehi arrived, Elder B.H. Roberts, an historian, politician, and leader in the Church, weighed in on this subject.
(See the next post, “How Can Anyone Defend Mesoamerica as the Land of Promise? – Part II,” for more insights into how far afield this research went in trying to establish Mesoamerica as the Land of Promise, and why it simply is not tenable today)

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