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Evaluating Book of Mormon geography theories
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Evaluating Book of Mormon geography theories
Question: How should a valid Book of Mormon geography be modeled?
Building a model
1 Nephi takes place in the Old World, but the remainder of the Book of Mormon is located in the "promised land" of the New World, the Americas. Old World locations (such as Jerusalem) are firmly fixed, while the New World geography requires more detective work. There are key geographical features mentioned in the New World accounts in the Book of Mormon. Decisions about how such features are to be interpreted have a major impact upon the final model. Some important issues are:
- Relative distances
- The Hill Cumorah
- Ten essential features of geography
- Cultural features
The first readers of the Book of Mormon tended to conceive of geography stretching for thousands of miles in a north-to-south direction. However, careful examination of the text revealed that the Book of Mormon was quite consistent in its use of distances, and that these distances covered only a few hundred miles at most, and not thousands as some had thought.
As John Sorenson observed:
- How wide and how long were those lands? The hourglass model could, after all, fit either the entire western hemisphere or a relatively small portion of it. It is vital to establish the scale of the territory where the scriptural events were played out. The crucial information in the record for determining dimensions is how long it took people to get from one place to another. Consider the distance between the city of Nephi and the city of Zarahemla. Ammon's party of missionaries trying to reach the land of Nephi "knew not the course they should travel in the wilderness to go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi"; consequently they found the place only after 40 days' journeying (Mosiah 7:4). More helpful is the journey of Alma and his converts, who traveled the same general route in reverse. They left the waters of Mormon, a place probably no more than a couple of days from the city of Nephi, and made it to Zarahemla in 21 days (Mosiah 18:1-7; Mosiah 23:1-3; Mosiah 24:20,25). The party included women, children, and "flocks." How fast could they have traveled?...
- There exists a wide range of possibilities, depending on the terrain, how accustomed the people were to traveling, and whether a single messenger, a whole people, or an army was involved. If we assume that Alma's people and animals went at ordinary speeds, they might plausibly have traveled at a rate of around 11 miles a day. [Sorenson then calculates the total distance from the text, and concludes:]
- So the actual trail or road mileage between Zarahemla and Nephi, the two dominant early cities, must have been on the order of 250 miles, assuming an 11-mile-per-day rate of travel. Given the twists and turns a real route would likely follow in such terrain, the distance as the crow flies would be more like 180.
Using this distance (which is established quite definitively in the text), Sorenson is then able to use other textual evidence to build a model in which the distances traveled in the Book of Mormon do not exceed more than a few hundred miles.
Sorenson's analysis cannot be considered the last word, but any coherent Book of Mormon geography must address the issues of distance within the text, as laid out by Sorenson.
It is interesting that, while the text is internally consistent in suggesting relatively small distances, Joseph Smith's contemporaries did not notice this, and simply read the Book as describing all of North and South America. If, as the critics insist, Joseph or a contemporary composed the Book of Mormon as fiction, why is the text
- incredibly consistent internally, while
- not a match at all for the expectations of Joseph and his fellow 19th century readers?
Question: What are the essential features of a valid Book of Mormon geography?
Ten essential features of geography
Author John Clark prepared a list of ten key elements which the Book of Mormon text requires for its geography. Any model can be checked against these textual requirements to assess its plausibility:
- A narrow neck (isthmus) separated the land northward from the land southward and was flanked by an east sea and a west sea.
- Nephite and Lamanite lands occupied at least three times as much western coastline as eastern coastline.
- The eastern wilderness was much wider and lower than the western wilderness but not nearly as wide as the southern wilderness.
- The city of Nephi was in a highland valley; Zarahemla was in a large river basin.
- The river Sidon flowed northward through Zarahemla.
- The Waters of Mormon was probably a highland lake of significant size.
- Zarahemla was surrounded by Nephite fortifications.
- The city of Nephi was three weeks’ travel south from Zarahemla and near the Waters of Mormon.
- The city of Bountiful was north of Zarahemla and near the narrow neck; it was about five days’ travel from Moroni and guarded the route to the land northward.
- Cumorah (also called Ramah) was near the eastern sea, not very far north of Bountiful.
Archaeology does not directly impact the building of a Book of Mormon geography, but it can act as a check on a model. Models that place the Book of Mormon in areas which are archaeologically consistent with the Book of Mormon story are more likely to be correct than those which have little archaeological support. Archaeological science is imperfect, of course, and new discoveries can overturn old certitudes. However, a model which matches both geographic and cultural clues gives us greater confidence in its accuracy.
Palmer notes that the following are all cultural aspects of the Book of Mormon account:
- formal political states
- organized religion
- calendar systems
While it is certainly true that Palmer's criteria for the Book of Mormon Cultures apply to the Land Southward cultures under the neck of land, there are skeptical alternate views with regards to whether they apply to the region of Cumorah or not. Those views argue that if there is a northern domain that is far removed from the central urban southern domain, it is not necessary to expect the same archaeological criteria for that northern domain necessarily.
Matthew Roper, Paul J. Fields, and Atul Nepal: "have applied the latest iteration of computer analyses to the unsigned editorials that appear in 1842 in the Times and Seasons"
Matthew Roper, Paul J. Fields, and Atul Nepal,
For over three decades now, computer analyses (using human-written programs, of course) have been used to differentiate the writing styles of authors. Over these decades, the analyses have become more sophisticated and more accurate, though accuracy is still relegated to probability, never certainty. Matt Roper, Paul Fields, and Atul Nepal have applied the latest iteration of computer analyses to the unsigned editorials that appear in 1842 in the Times and Seasons. Did Joseph Smith write the LDS editorial comments on Stephens and Catherwood’s book on Central American ruins? Read and see. —(Click here to continue) 
John Clark: "the first question that arises is whether the geography fits the archaeology of the proposed area. This should be our second question, the first being whether the geography fits the facts of the Book of Mormon"
It has been my experience that most members of the Church, when confronted with a Book of Mormon geography, worry about the wrong things. Almost invariably the first question that arises is whether the geography fits the archaeology of the proposed area. This should be our second question, the first being whether the geography fits the facts of the Book of Mormon-a question we all can answer without being versed in American archaeology. Only after a given geography reconciles all of the significant geographic details given in the Book of Mormon does the question of archaeological and historical detail merit attention. The Book of Mormon must be the final and most important arbiter in deciding the correctness of a given geography; otherwise we will be forever hostage to the shifting sands of expert opinion. The following is my personal opinion of what I think the Book of Mormon actually says. I focus here only on those details which allow the construction of a basic framework for a Nephite geography; I leave more detailed reconstructions to others. Of primary importance are those references which give relative distances or directions (or both) between various locations, or details which allow us to make a strong inference of either distance or direction. —(Click here to continue) 
- From 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 ),8–12.; graphic from John W. Welch and J. Gregory Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, Utah: FARMS and Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Texts, 1999), chart 152. ISBN 0934893403. (Permission in digital version granted for non-profit reproduction and distribution if copyright notice intact and material unaltered.)
- 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 ), 9.
- 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 ),8–22. See a more recent discussion by Sorenson in John L. Sorenson, Mormon's Map (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 55–81. ISBN 0934893489.
- John E. Clark, "A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies (Review of Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon by F. Richard Hauck)," FARMS Review of Books 1/1 (1989): 20–70. off-site; summarized by John W. Welch and J. Gregory Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, Utah: FARMS and Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Texts, 1999), chart 149. ISBN 0934893403. (Permission in digital version granted for non-profit reproduction and distribution if copyright notice intact and material unaltered.)
- From John E. Clark, "A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies (Review of Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon by F. Richard Hauck)," FARMS Review of Books 1/1 (1989): 20–70. off-site; Figure 2 off-site
- David A. Palmer, "Review of The Land of the Nephites by Delbert W. Curtis," FARMS Review of Books 2/1 (1990): 67–73. off-site
- Matthew Roper, Paul J. Fields, and Atul Nepal, "Joseph Smith, the Times and Seasons, and Central American Ruins," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22:2 (2013)
- John Clark, "A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies," Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 1:1 (1989(