Hemispheric Geography Model of Book of Mormon geography

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Hemispheric Geography Model of Book of Mormon geography

Question: What is the Hemispheric Geography Theory regarding the location of Book of Mormon lands?

The Hemispheric Geography Theory is the traditional understanding of the Book of Mormon

The Hemispheric Geography Theory (or HGT) is the traditional understanding of the Book of Mormon. It postulates that the events in the book took place over North and South America, with the Isthmus of Panama as the narrow neck of land.

Orson Pratt was the best-known proponent of the hemispheric model

The earliest and best-known proponent of the hemispheric model was Orson Pratt, who espoused it as early as 1832[1] and continued to teach it for decades. Throughout the nineteenth century, many Latter-day Saint writers followed Pratt’s model, and eventually his geographical ideas were incorporated into the footnotes of the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon. The popularity of the hemispheric model notwithstanding, it simply is not clear whether it was the result of prophetic revelation or merely the outgrowth of the personal ideas and assumptions of the Prophet Joseph Smith and other brethren.[2]

Joseph Smith likely believed in a hemispheric Book of Mormon geography

Frederick G. Williams attributed this model to Joseph Smith,[3] but this was based on William's interpretation of an anonymous manuscript that did not appear in print until 1882.[4]

A more recent advocate of the HGT, Earl Wunderli[5] has been reviewed.[6] Wunderli believes that the Book of Mormon text is clearly hemispheric, though he seems to presume that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon as a nineteenth century work, and thus reflects Joseph's preoccupations.[7]

Advantages of the hemispheric model

  • it matches how the earliest members of the Church tended to read the Book of Mormon
  • many members of the Church continue to have this sort of 'image' in their mind as they read the Book of Mormon–it is familiar, and comfortable
  • it has sanction in the writings and talks of many Church leaders of the past, who gave their personal opinions about it. However, now the Church takes no position on it.

Disadvantages of the hemispheric model

  • distances in the Book of Mormon are extremely difficult to square with the HGT scale, which requires thousands of miles in a North-South direction
  • even if it were true that there was an exceedingly great distance between the core Nephite domain and the Cumorah where the Nephites and the Jaredites were destroyed, there is no justification from the text of also extending this exceeding distance throughout the whole western hemisphere.


  1. A newspaper account of Mormon missionaries who preached in Pennsylvania in 1832 mentions Orson Pratt in connection with this teaching. See B. Stokely, “The Orators of Mormonism,” Catholic Telegraph (Cincinnati), 14 April 1832, a reprint from Mercer (PA) Free Press.
  2. "Statement on Book of Mormon Geography," FARMS (accessed 18 September 2006) off-site
  3. John W. Welch and John L. Sorenson, "Did Lehi Land in Chile? An Assessment of the Frederick G. Williams Statement," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), 57–61.
  4. William J. Hamblin, "Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1. (1993). [161–197] link
  5. Earl M. Wunderli, "Critique of a Limited Geography for Book of Mormon Events," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35 no. 3 (2002), 161–197.
  6. Brant Gardner, "An Exploration in Critical Methodology: Critiquing a Critique (Review of: “Critique of a Limited Geography for Book of Mormon Events,” Dialogue 35/3 (2002): 161–97)," FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 173–224. off-site
  7. See Gardner, "Critiquing a critique," footnote 16 (referring to Wunderli, note 44.)

Question: Why have Church leaders taught a hemispheric geography for the Book of Mormon rather than a limited one?

"Traditional" interpretations of the Book of Mormon assume a hemispheric geography

Latter-day Saint anthropologist John L. Sorenson specifically notes that there is a difference between the "traditional" interpretation of the Book of Mormon versus what it actually says,

One problem some Latter-day Saint writers and lecturers have had is confusing the actual text of the Book of Mormon with the traditional interpretation of it. For example, a commonly heard statement is that the Book of Mormon is “the history of the American Indians.” This statement contains a number of unexamined assumptions—that the scripture is a history in the common sense—a systematic, chronological account of the main events in the past of a nation or territory; that “the” American Indians are a unitary population; and that the approximately one hundred pages of text containing historical and cultural material in the scripture could conceivably tell the entire history of a hemisphere. When unexamined assumptions like these are made, critics respond in kind, criticizing not the ancient text itself, but the assumptions we have made about it. [1]

Sorenson notes that critics make the same assumptions about traditional interpretations as Latter-day saints,

Among the criticisms of the Book of Mormon by archaeologists, the two most widely circulated statements (the late Robert Wauchope’s book and Michael Coe’s article nearly a decade ago) suffer from similar limitations. Both of these eminent scholars based their reactions to the Book of Mormon on the same unfortunate assumption that the Book of Mormon account is about events involving American Indians throughout the entire New World. Their conclusions were as flawed as those arrived at by some Latter-day Saints. [1]

Question: Did Joseph Smith teach a hemispheric, rather than a limited, geography model for the Book of Mormon?

It does not appear that the Angel Moroni identified the locations of places mentioned in the Book of Mormon

What did Joseph Smith believe and teach about Book of Mormon geography? How does it relate to the location where the plates were buried? Matthew Roper addresses this issue:

The Prophet Joseph Smith knew that the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated had been obtained from the hill near his home. Aside from this, however, it does not appear that the angel Moroni identified current locations for places mentioned in the book. It is noteworthy—but scarcely surprising—that the Book of Mormon itself does not identify the hill in which it was buried. Instead, the hill in which all the Nephite plates other than those of the Book of Mormon were buried is identified (Mormon 6:6).26 It is also unclear how much, if any, geography Moroni revealed to the Prophet—whose calling was that of translator, not geographer. In the absence of revelation on Book of Mormon geography, we must expect the Saints to express their own ideas. Revelation is one thing, while speculation is quite another. Joseph Smith said very little about the geography of the Book of Mormon. What little he did say suggests that he may have shared the view held by his associates, that the Book of Mormon narrative describes events occurring in North, Central, and South America. [2]

Latter-day Saint archaeologist John Clark "points out the dangers of uncritically accepting the opinions of Joseph Smith as authoritative on the issue of Book of Mormon geography." [3]

The dangerous area is where opinion is thought to clarify ambiguities in the text, of which there are many. The minimal fact that various statements are attributed to Joseph Smith that place cities in different lands suggests that he continued to be interested throughout [Page 80]his life in the location of Book of Mormon lands and, consequently, that it remained an open question for him. If he knew where they were, why did he continue guessing? Should we not be similarly open-minded today? Do we go with the Prophet’s early statements or his later statements? [4]

Joseph occasionally expressed ideas related to where the Book of Mormon occurred, which ranged from the area around New York to the lands of Central America

Joseph occasionally expressed ideas related to where the Book of Mormon occurred, which ranged from the area around New York to the lands of Central America. He never explicitly taught a specific geography, although he appears to have held a hemispheric view, just as many members today do. Joseph was as much an observer of the restoration as he was its principle player. When revelations were received, he had to use his physical faculties to interpret and understand them like the rest of us. And although he had a "front row seat" to many of the foundational events, he was often as astounded and surprised by the revelations he received as were those who received them from him, and he had to understand those things that were evidenced but not explicitly stated by revelation in the same way we all do. This includes of course the geographic setting for the Book of Mormon. A limited geography does not in any way contradict the revelations of Joseph Smith.
  1. 1.0 1.1 John L. Sorenson, "Digging into the Book of Mormon: Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and Its Scripture" (Part 1), Ensign (September 1984) off-site
  2. Matthew Roper, "Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations," The FARMS Review 16/2 (2004).
  3. Neal Rappleye, "War of Words and Tumult of Opinions”: The Battle for Joseph Smith’s Words in Book of Mormon Geography," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 79.
  4. John E. Clark, “Evaluating the Case for a Limited Great Lakes Setting,” FARMS Review of Books 14/1–2 (2002): 28.