Book of Mormon/Geography/Criticisms

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Criticisms related to Book of Mormon geography

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Question: Do we need to know where the Book of Mormon took place?

Since a precise knowledge of where the Book of Mormon took place is not necessary for it to bring spiritual conversion, the Church has never offered a revealed or official geography, and is unlikely to do so

It is claimed that the Church has no official position on geography of the Book of Mormon because the lands in the Book of Mormon never existed.

Since a precise knowledge of where the Book of Mormon took place is not necessary for it to bring spiritual conversion, the Church has never offered a revealed or official geography, and is unlikely to do so.

Those who offer this criticism often exaggerate the extent to which Biblical locations are known

Those who offer this criticism often exaggerate the extent to which Biblical locations are known, and ignore the disadvantages under which New World archaeology labors compared to the Old World.

Critics also ignore that there is substantial evidence for the Old World accounts in the Book of Mormon that were not known in Joseph Smith's day.

Most LDS scholars believe that a Mesoamerican setting best matches the Book of Mormon data, but other models have been advanced by others. Given that the Church has no revealed geography outside the Book of Mormon text, it is unlikely that a "Church-endorsed" map will be published. This does not prevent other researchers from seeking the most plausible correlation, but such undertakings remain secular, not spiritual.

Question: Should we reject statements made by Joseph Smith regarding Book of Mormon geography?

Some wish us to accept earlier statements by Joseph as prophetic and binding, while ignoring the content of later statements which do not match their personal theories

It is claimed that LDS scholars "disdain" Joseph Smith by rejecting statements that he made regarding Book of Mormon geography.

Joseph Smith made several statements about Book of Mormon geography. The content of his statements changed over time. Some wish us to accept earlier statements by Joseph as prophetic and binding, while ignoring the content of later statements which do not match their personal theories. They attack those who disagree with them as "discounting and disdaining" Joseph, while ignoring that their theories likewise discount later statements made by Joseph.

Other believers in Joseph Smith's divine call have decided that the differences in Joseph's statements over time suggest that his earliest statements were not based on a prophetic revelation about the specifics of Book of Mormon geography. Their desire to consider all of Joseph's statements led them to this conclusion, not a desire to "disdain" or "discount" him.

Since Church leaders have been clear that there is no revealed Book of Mormon geography, it seems strange to claim that those who agree that Joseph made no definitive prophetic statement are discounting the Prophet. If leaders of the Church have not believed there is an official geography from Joseph or anyone else, does this mean that they too are "discounting or disdaining" Joseph?

The implication being made is that LDS scholars who have speculated that Joseph Smith did not know the exact location of the Book of Mormon events are "disdaining" Joseph

One DVD narrator claims that the "fruit of the Central American theories" is that LDS researchers are "dismissing Joseph Smith," as illustrated by the following quotes. The narrator claims that the names of these authors are being withheld "because this is not about the individuals."

Quote #1: "Since Moroni offered Joseph Smith only a brief sketch, it is unlikely that he revealed to Joseph a comprehensive knowledge of Native American origins. It is important to understand that Joseph Smith did not have access to this knowledge. He translated the book, but apparently did not know the scope of its geography."
—Name withheld
NOTE: This quote is from LDS scholar Matthew Roper.[1]

Quote #2: "Exactly what Joseph Smith believed at different times in his life concerning Book of Mormon geography in general is also indeterminable. I think it's quite clear where Joseph Smith thought it was. Evidently, Joseph Smith's views on this matter were open to further knowledge."
— Name withheld
NOTE: This quote is from LDS scholar Kenneth W. Godfrey.[2]

Quote #3: "The historical sources give no indication that Moroni's instructions to the young Joseph Smith included geography. Nor did Joseph Smith claim inspiration on the matter. Ideas he later expressed about the location of events reported in the book apparently reflected his own best thinking."
—Name withheld
NOTE: This quote is from LDS scholar John Sorenson.[3]

President Hinckley was not referring to LDS scholars when he talked of people "disdaining" Joseph Smith - he was talking of apostates

After showing these "name witheld" quotes, the DVD narrator then claims that the following quote from Gordon B. Hinckley is the "end-sign":

"It is a constantly recurring mystery to me how some people speak with admiration for the church and its work while at the same time, disdaining him through whom, as a servant of the Lord, came the framework of all the church is, all that it teaches and all that is stands for. They would pluck the fruit from the tree while cutting off the root from which it grows."

The implication, of course, is that LDS scholars who have speculated that Joseph Smith did not know the exact location of the Book of Mormon events are "disdaining" Joseph. On the back of the cellophane DVD wrapper is a sticky label imprinted with the following notice:

"Correction Notice: A quote from President Hinckley used in the presentation is used incorrectly and will be removed from the next version of the DVD. It was incorrectly understood that the Prophet was speaking of all people who dismiss Joseph Smith, including LDS scholars; however it has been brought to my attention that President Hinckley spoke specifically of non-members and did not specifically mention scholars. As stated in the presentation, if there are mistakes, they will be corrected."

However, despite the presence of the disclaimer on the back of the DVD case, in the live seminar titled "Introduction to Book of Mormon Evidences," the presentation still displays the quotes from LDS scholars and then refers to those that make such statements as "discounting and disdaining" Joseph Smith.[4]

President Hinckley was not referring to LDS scholars when he talked of people "disdaining" Joseph Smith - he was talking of apostates.

Question: Do references to "this continent" made by Joseph Smith refer to North America?

In Joseph Smith's day, the term "this continent" included North and South America

With regard to the location of Book of Mormon lands, it is sometimes claimed that "[t]here's a North American continent and a South American continent in Noah Webster's [1850] dictionary," and that this means that all references to "this continent" must refer to North America. However, in Joseph Smith's day, the term "this continent" included North and South America. The tradition of separating the North and South into separate continents was a later practice.

The definition of "continent" in Webster's 1828 dictionary refers to the "Eastern and Western continent"

  • Joseph died in 1844, therefore a Webster's Dictionary from the 1850's is meaningless relative to this claim.
  • Webster's 1828 dictionary defines a ""continent"" as follows:

1. In geography, a great extent of land, not disjoined or interrupted by a sea; a connected tract of land of great extent; as the Eastern and Western continent. It differs from an isle only in extent. New Holland may be denominated a continent. Britain is called a continent, as opposed to the isle of Anglesey. (emphasis added)

  • Webster's definition of a "Eastern and Western continent" is equivalent to today's definition of "Eastern and Western hemisphere." This usage is entirely consistent with Joseph's use of the term. Note also that the 1828 definition of "America" in the same dictionary refers to the entire North and South American landmass as a single continent:

One of the great continents, first discovered by Sebastian Cabot, June 11, O.S. 1498, and by Columbus, or Christoval Colon, Aug. 1, the same year. It extends from the eightieth degree of North, to the fifty-fourth degree of South Latitude; and from the thirty-fifth to the one hundred and fifty-sixth degree of Longitude West from Greenwich, being about nine thousand miles in length. Its breadth at Darien is narrowed to about forty-five miles, but at the northern extremity is nearly four thousand miles. From Darien to the North, the continent is called North America, and to the South, it is called South America. (emphasis added)

Question: Was it revealed to Joseph Smith that the Book of Mormon city of Zarahemla was located on the Mississippi River opposite where Nauvoo is located today?

Church leaders have indicated that no one knows the location of Zarahemla

In 1929, Anthony W. Ivins, member of the First Presidency, said in General Conference:

There is a great deal of talk about the geography of the Book of Mormon. Where was the land of Zarahemla? Where was the City of Zarahemla? and other geographic matters. It does not make any difference to us. There has never been anything yet set forth that definitely settles that question. So the Church says we are just waiting until we discover the truth. All kinds of theories have been advanced. I have talked with at least half a dozen men that have found the very place where the City of Zarahemla stood, and notwithstanding the fact that they profess to be Book of Mormon students, they vary a thousand miles apart in the places they have located. We do not offer any definite solution. As you study the Book of Mormon keep these things in mind and do not make definite statements concerning things that have not been proven in advance to be true.[5]

Harold B. Lee also did not show any awareness that the location of Zarahemla had been revealed through Joseph Smith:

Some say the Hill Cumorah was in southern Mexico (and someone pushed it down still farther) and not in western New York. Well, if the Lord wanted us to know where it was, or where Zarahemla was, he'd have given us latitude and longitude, don't you think? And why bother our heads trying to discover with archaeological certainty the geographical locations of the cities of the Book of Mormon like Zarahemla?[6]

Claims that D&C 125 names the site ignore that it was already named Zarahemla by settlers

Matthew Roper observed:

On 2 July 1839, Joseph Smith and other church leaders visited the site [of "Zarahemla, across the river from Nauvoo] in question. The entry published in the History of the Church reads as follows:
Spent the forenoon of this day on the Iowa side of the river. Went, in company with Elders Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, and Bishops Whitney and Knight, and others, to visit a purchase lately made by Bishop Knight as a location for a town, and advised that a town be built there, and called Zarahemla.[7]

The last three words of this entry, "and called Zarahemla," were not written by Joseph Smith but were written into the "Manuscript History of Joseph Smith" by Elder Willard Richards when he recorded the history for that date sometime after the Prophet's death in 1844.[8] However, referring to the settlement as "Zarahemla" before the March 1841 revelation is consistent with other historical evidence showing that the Saints already referred to the site by that name. Brigham Young, who began keeping a regular journal in early 1839, recorded that on 2 July 1839 "Brothers Joseph, Hyrum and others came over the river to Montrose, and went out on the prairie and looked out the sight for a city for the Saints, which was called Zarahemla."[9] Elias Smith, a cousin of Joseph Smith, recorded in his journal for 24 June 1839 the following: "Moved from Commerce to Lee County, Iowa Territory, and went on the farm bought of F. P. Blevins." 87 In his journal for 16 August 1840, he recorded the death of the Prophet's brother Don Carlos and noted that there was a "Conference at Zarahemla" on that day. "[10] These early references to the name of the Iowa settlement previous to March 1841 indicate that the Saints referred to it as Zarahemla long before the reve­lation in question. There is no indication in these early sources that this designation was based upon revelation or even that it was Joseph Smith's idea. This evidence suggests, rather, that the name did not originate with the March 1841 revelation and that the Lord was referencing a location already known among the Saints by that name. The purpose of the revelation was most likely to counsel the Saints to gather at the appointed place and not, as the authors [of the Heartland theory] suggest, to reveal the ancient location of a Book of Mormon city. The Saints did what they would often do—name places they lived after places mentioned in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. There is no compelling reason to associate the Iowa settlement with ancient Zarahemla.[11]

Thus, the site called "Zarahemla" had been given the name long before the revelation. The revelation referred to the site by the name given by settlers; it did not instruct that a new name for the site be adopted.

Question: Does a Mesoamerican limited geographical Book of Mormon setting contradict D&C 54:8, which discusses the "borders of the Lamanites" being in North America?

The statement "borders of the Lamanites" applied to a Missouri setting does not exclude any possible geographical model for the Book of Mormon

In the revelation that became D&C 28, the location of the city of Zion is originally stated to be "among the Lamanites."

And now I say unto you, that it is not revealed, and no man knoweth where the City shall be built, but it shall be given hereafter. Behold, I say unto you, that it shall be among the Lamanites. [12]

When this revelation was published in the Book of Commandments (Chapter 30), Sidney Rigdon modified the text "among the Lamanites" to read "on the borders by the Lamanites". [13]

8. And now behold I say unto you, that it is not revealed, and no man knoweth where the city shall be built, but it shall be given hereafter.
9. Behold I say unto you, that it shall be on the borders by the Lamanites. [14]

From the present D&C:

9 And now, behold, I say unto you that it is not revealed, and no man knoweth where the city Zion shall be built, but it shall be given hereafter. Behold, I say unto you that it shall be on the borders by the Lamanites. DC 28:9

The present Doctrine and Covenants Section 54:8 contains a command to journey to the "borders of the Lamanites."

And thus you shall take your journey into the regions westward, unto the land of Missouri, unto the borders of the Lamanites. (DC 54:8) (emphasis added)

Compare this to Alma 39:3, which states:

And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel. (Alma 39:3) (emphasis added)

Critics use the revelatory association of the "land of Missouri," "among the Lamanites" and the "borders to the Lamanites" to conclude that Church members must accept that the geographical region covered by the Book of Mormon encompasses the area occupied by the present state of Missouri. This is used by critics to "prove" that we are required to accept a hemispheric geographical setting. The same reasoning could be applied in order to "prove" the validity of a limited North American setting.

There is no revealed Book of Mormon geographical setting. Although many LDS scholars favor a Mesoamerican setting based upon a substantial amount of evidence, there are many different models which propose settings in other regions in North America, South America or the entire hemispheric New World. The response to this criticism is not intended to promote a particular setting over another, but rather to rebut an attempt to exclude any setting other than a North American one.

All who can be considered "Lamanites" are not described in the Book of Mormon

It is important to note that the Lamanites are a people, and that they are not limited to the geographical area described within the Book of Mormon itself. For example, the story of Zelph identifies a potential Lamanite who lived in the area of Pike County, Illinois. During this period of time Joseph Smith clearly considered the lands of the Nephites and Lamanites to be associated with the "Indian Territories" of the western frontier. The identification of this individual as a "Lamanite" does not mean that the events surrounding this individual are covered during the period of time or geographical area associated with the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon describes a number of migrations to "the land northward:"

And it came to pass that in the thirty and seventh year of the reign of the judges, there was a large company of men, even to the amount of five thousand and four hundred men, with their wives and their children, departed out of the land of Zarahemla into the land which was northward. (Alma 63:4)

And it came to pass that in this year there were many people who went forth into the land northward. And thus ended the thirty and eighth year. (Alma 63:9)

And it came to pass in the forty and sixth, yea, there was much contention and many dissensions; in the which there were an exceedingly great many who departed out of the land of Zarahemla, and went forth unto the land northward to inherit the land. (Helaman 3:3)

As people continued to migrate northward, they passed out of the scope of the Book of Mormon narrative. In essence, the "borders of the Lamanites" continued to expand far beyond the scope of the original Book of Mormon narrative long after the period of time described. It is therefore not unreasonable to expect to see "Lamanites" in the land northward that are not accounted for or described in the Book of Mormon.

Question: Could Lehi's group have made a transoceanic crossing as described in the Book of Mormon?

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #21: Did Ancient People Sail the Seas? (Video)

It is definitely possible to sail from Arabia to the Americas

The Book of Mormon, in 1 Nephi chapters 17 and 18, recounts that Nephi built a ship in which the Lehi colony sailed from the old world to the new. In June 2010 the History Channel aired a documentary, "Who Really Discovered America?" which claims that it would have been impossible for a ship made by Nephi to have successfully carried the people and necessary supplies in a transoceanic crossing.

It is definitely possible to sail from Arabia to the Americas. The only way to conclude that Nephi could not have done so is to insist that he must have built an inadequate ship, and this documentary is very specific in its assumptions about what Nephi must have built and why therefore the voyage could not have succeeded. There is no basis for accepting those assumptions except for a disbelief in the premise that God may reveal information to men and women.

What were the specifications of Nephi's ship?

In 1 Nephi chapter 17, Nephi recorded the circumstances of his instruction to build a ship:

And it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had been in the land of Bountiful for the space of many days, the voice of the Lord came unto me, saying: Arise, and get thee into the mountain. And it came to pass that I arose and went up into the mountain, and cried unto the Lord. And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters.(1 Nephi 17:7-8)

And I said unto them: If God had commanded me to do all things I could do them. If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou earth, it should be earth; and if I should say it, it would be done. And now, if the Lord has such great power, and has wrought so many miracles among the children of men, how is it that he cannot instruct me, that I should build a ship? (1 Nephi 17:50-51)

In 1 Nephi chapter 18, Nephi additionally comments on the exceptional nature of the ship's construction:

And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship. Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men. And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things. And it came to pass that after I had finished the ship, according to the word of the Lord, my brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine; wherefore, they did humble themselves again before the Lord. (1 Nephi 18:1-4)

Nephi does not record the technical details of the design or construction of the ship, aside from that it was made of timbers, it sailed and was driven forth before the wind and so presumably had sails, and that it could be steered.

But Nephi did repeatedly specify that he did not design it himself, did not base it on the shipbuilding technology then available in his own and neighboring cultures, and that his work was not informed by any source except direct revelation.

The History Channel used false assumptions in reaching its conclusion

In "Who Really Discovered America?" the documentary presents analysis from a naval archeologist and an oceanographer, which assumes the following:

  1. That Nephi would have built a ship according to the naval technology then available.
  2. Therefore, Nephi's ship would have closely resembled a Roman ship of the time, with a "round formed hull," "thick ribbed," a square sail, and an "elevated bow and stern."
  3. Ships built in that Roman style were unable to travel at top sailing speeds.
  4. The Lehites would have launched from the Arabian peninsula, sailed eastward across the Indian Ocean, eastward across the Pacific Ocean, and landed somewhere on the west coast of the Americas.
  5. The voyage was non-stop with no replenishment of supplies.

The documentary thereby concludes that:

  • Known wind patterns and currents across those oceans would have prevented a Roman ship from making that crossing any faster than 580 days.
  • All passengers would have died on such a long voyage. The documentary does not spell out why this would necessarily follow; presumably he meant that the Lehites could not have carried sufficient supplies to sustain them for so long.

Of the assumptions used, the first three are directly contradicted by the Book of Mormon text. The fifth is not addressed by the text at all. The analysis is not a serious study of the available information and the conclusions are faulty.

The text instead states that Nephi built a ship from revealed designs and techniques, which were "curious" and not "after the manner of men." There's absolutely nothing to indicate that Nephi's ship had the hull, ribs, sails, bow and stern like the documentary says they must have been.

Resources Were Available to Build a Ship

Many believe that there weren't sufficient resources for Nephi to build a ship, but at least two locations have been proposed by Book of Mormon Scholars for Nephi's Bountiful which provide abundant resources for Nephi to construct a ship. Scholar George D. Potter offers Khor Rori as a candidate for Nephi's bountiful in a paper for Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.[15] Scholars Lynn and Hope Wilson propose Khor Kharfot as Nephi's Bountiful.[16]
  1. Matthew Roper, "Nephi's Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 91–128. off-site
  2. Kenneth W. Godfrey, "What is the Significance of Zelph In The Study Of Book of Mormon Geography?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): 70–79. off-site wiki
  3. John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 [1985]), 1.
  4. This was true at least as of "The Firm Foundation's" 6 March 2009 seminar presentation.
  5. Anthony W. Ivins, Conference Report (April 1929), 16.
  6. Harold B. Lee, "Loyalty," address to religious educators, July 8, 1966, Charge to Religious Educators, second edition (Salt Lake City: Church Educational System and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982), 65, cited in Dennis B. Horne (ed.), Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluation Doctrinal Truth (Roy, Utah: Eborn Books, 2005), 172–173.
  7. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:382, emphasis added. Volume 3 link
  8. "Manuscript History of Joseph Smith," 2 July 1839, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City. See also History of the Church, 3:382, emphasis added; Dean C. Jessee, "The Writing of Joseph Smith's History," BYU Studies 11/4 (Summer 1971): 439–73; and Howard C. Searle, "Willard Richards as Historian," BYU Studies 31/2 (Spring 1991): 41–62.
  9. Elias Smith Journal, 24 June 1839, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.
  10. Elias Smith Journal, 16 August 1840, emphasis added.
  11. Matthew Roper, "Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography (A review of "Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America" by: Bruce H. Porter and Rod L. Meldrum)," FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 15–85. off-site wiki
  12. "Ezra Booth Letter," Ohio Star Nov. 29, 1831.
  13. Manuscript Revelation Books, vol. 1 of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2009), 51-53.
  14. Book of Commandments, Ch. 30.
  15. George D. Potter, "Khor Rori: A Maritime Resources-Based Candidate for Nephi’s Harbor," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 51 (2022): 253–94.
  16. Lynn M. Hilton, “In Search of Lehi’s Trail—30 Years Later,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15, no. 2 (2006).