Question: Where is the Hill Cumorah?

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Question: Where is the Hill Cumorah?

Joseph Smith never used the name "Cumorah" in his own writings when referring to the gold plates' resting place

It is not clear exactly when the New York hill from which Joseph Smith retrieved the gold plates became associated with the name "Cumorah." Joseph Smith never used the name in his own writings when referring to the plates' resting place. The only use of it from his pen seems to be DC 128:20, which uses the phrase "Glad tidings from Cumorah!" In 1830, Oliver Cowdery referred to the records' location as "Cumorah," while preaching to the Delaware Indians, and by 1835 the term seems to have been in common use among Church members.[1]

Early Church leaders believed that the Book of Mormon took place on the entire North and South American continents

However, there is evidence that Joseph Smith and other Church leaders believed that the events of the Book of Mormon spanned the North and South American continents, that the isthmus of Panama was the "narrow neck" of land, and that the hill in New York was the "Cumorah" referred to in the Book of Mormon. Joseph wrote a letter to Emma during Zion's Camp in which he referred to "wandering over the plains of the Nephites." [2] Oliver Cowdery wrote in one of his letters to W.W. Phelps published in the Messenger and Advocate:

A history of the inhabitants who peopled this continent, previous to its being discovered to Europeans by Columbus, must be interesting to every man; and as it would develope the important fact, that the present race were descendants of Abraham....[3]

Note that "this continent" refers to both North and South America; Columbus never set foot in the present day United States; he was confined to the the Caribbean, South America and Central America. (Click here for maps of Columbus' voyages.)

David Whitmer is not told that the hill from which Joseph received the record was called Cumorah, but this usage seems to have nevertheless become common within the Church

One reference comes from a later interview with David Whitmer, who recounted how Oliver Cowdery had written to him, asking for help to transport Joseph and Oliver from Harmony to the Peter Whitmer home in Fayette:

When I was returning to Fayette, with Joseph and Oliver, all of us riding in the wagon, Oliver and I on an old-fashioned, wooden, spring seat and Joseph behind us; while traveling along in a clear open place, a very pleasant, nice-looking old man suddenly appeared by the side of our wagon and saluted us with, "Good morning, it is very warm," at the same time wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation, and, by a sign from Joseph, I invited him to ride if he was going our way. But he said very pleasantly, "No, I am going to Cumorah." This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant. We all gazed at him and at each other, and as I looked around inquiringly of Joseph, the old man instantly disappeared, so that I did not see him again.[4]

Interestingly, Whitmer is not told that the hill from which Joseph received the record was called Cumorah, but this usage seems to have nevertheless become common within the Church. Given that Whitmer's reminiscence is late, and unsubstantiated by other contemporaneous accounts, some historians question its accuracy, especially in a detail such as the name of the Hill, which later became common Church usage.[5]

The Book of Mormon text indicates that the Hill Cumorah in which the Nephite records were hidden is not the same location as the one where Moroni hid his plates

Despite this early "identification" of the Hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon with the hill in New York, readers who studied the text closely would later conclude that they could not be the same.

The primary text to demonstrate this is Mormon 6:6

6 And it came to pass that when we had gathered in all our people in one to the land of Cumorah, behold I, Mormon, began to be old; and knowing it to be the last struggle of my people, and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites, (for the Lamanites would destroy them) therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni.

Mormon clearly separates the hill Cumorah from where Moroni buried the plates (the drumlin in Palmyra).

In 1937–1939 Washburn and Washburn argued that the Nephite/Jaredite final battles at the Hill Cumorah were near the narrow neck of land, and thus unlikely to be in New York.[6] Thomas Ferguson was of the same view in 1947,[7]and Sidney Sperry came down on the side of a Middle America location in a 1964 BYU religion class,[8] though he had previously endorsed a New York location.[9]

Since the 1950s, opinion among Book of Mormon scholars has increasingly trended toward the realization that the Nephite Cumorah and the Hill in New York cannot be the same

Since the 1950s, opinion among Book of Mormon scholars has increasingly trended toward the realization that the Nephite Cumorah and the Hill in New York cannot be the same.[10] Elder Dallin H. Oaks recalled his own experience at BYU:

Here [at BYU] I was introduced to the idea that the Book of Mormon is not a history of all of the people who have lived on the continents of North and South America in all ages of the earth. Up to that time, I had assumed that it was. If that were the claim of the Book of Mormon, any piece of historical, archaeological, or linguistic evidence to the contrary would weigh in against the Book of Mormon, and those who rely exclusively on scholarship would have a promising position to argue.

In contrast, if the Book of Mormon only purports to be an account of a few peoples who inhabited a portion of the Americas during a few millennia in the past, the burden of argument changes drastically. It is no longer a question of all versus none; it is a question of some versus none. In other words, in the circumstance I describe, the opponents of historicity must prove that the Book of Mormon has no historical validity for any peoples who lived in the Americas in a particular time frame, a notoriously difficult exercise.[11]

There are 13 geographical conditions required for the Book of Mormon Hill Cumorah

In 1981, Palmer identified 13 geographical conditions required for the Book of Mormon Hill Ramah/Cumorah:

  1. near eastern seacoast
  2. near narrow neck of land
  3. on a coastal plain and near other mountains and valleys
  4. one day's journey south of a large body of water
  5. an area of many rivers and waters
  6. presence of fountains
  7. water gives military advantage
  8. an escape route southward
  9. hill large enough to view hundreds of thousands of bodies
  10. hill must be a significant landmark
  11. hill must be free standing so people can camp around it
  12. in temperate climate with no cold or snow
  13. in a volcanic zone susceptible to earthquakes[12]

Clearly, the placement of Cumorah will greatly affect the map which results. Issues of distance, as discussed above, play a role here as well.

Some authors who have other views on the internal geography have directly disputed the validity of some of David Palmer's criteria for the ancient Cumorah.[13] The question of distance plays an important role in the skeptical views towards these criteria. If it is demonstrated that there is a greater distance between the narrow neck of land and Cumorah, for example, and there is a "northern hinterland" to the Nephite domain, then the questions of climate and so forth in these criteria are not going to apply necessarily to the hill Cumorah. Furthermore, the issues of height have been called into question as well.

Statements made by Church leaders or Church publications related to the "Hill Cumorah"

Summary: Church leaders have expressed a variety of opinions over the years regarding the location of the Hill Cumorah

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Nineteenth Century: Statements on Book of Mormon geography made during Joseph Smith's lifetime: 1829-1840

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  1. Rex C. Reeve, Jr., and Richard O. Cowan, "The Hill Called Cumorah," in Larry C. Porter, Milton V. Backman, Jr., and Susan Easton Black, eds., Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint History: New York and Pennsylvania (Provo: BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1992), 73–74.
  2. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, [original edition] (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1984). ISBN 0877479747. GL direct link
  3. Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, "Letter VII," (July 1835) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:155-159. off-site
  4. Interview with David Whitmer [conducted 7–8 September 1878 in Richmond, Missouri], "Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith," Millennial Star 40 (9 December 1878), 771–774.
  5. Martin H. Raish, "Encounters with Cumorah: A Selective, Personal Bibliography," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 13/1 (2004): 38–49. off-site wiki
  6. Jesse A. Washburn and Jesse N. Washburn, From Babel to Cumorah (Provo, UT: New Era Publishing, 1937).
  7. Thomas S. Ferguson, Cumorah—Where? (Independence, MO: Press of Zion's Print. & Publishing Company, 1947).
  8. Sidney B. Sperry, Handout, Religion 622 (31 March 1964); published in Sidney B. Sperry, "Were There Two Cumorahs?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/1 (1995): 260–268. off-site wiki
  9. Sidney B. Sperry, The Book of Mormon Testifies (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), 335–336. Sperry would later write: "In this volume I have reversed my views, held many years ago, that the Hill Cumorah, around which the last great battles of the Nephites and Jaredites took place, was in the State of New York. The book of Mormon data are very clear and show quite conclusively that the Hill (Ramah to the Jaredites) was in the land of Desolation, somewhere in Middle America. I have summed up my arguments and conclusions in connection with the discussion of Mormon, Chapter 6. My conclusions have been tested in a number of classes of graduate students who were challenged to demonstrate their falsity. Up to the present time, no one has done so. The Hill Cumorah in New York, from which the Prophet Joseph Smith obtained the Nephite plates, may have been so named by Moroni in commemoration of the Cumorah in the land of Desolation, around which his father and fellow Nephites lost their lives in their last struggles with the Lamanites." - Sidney B. Sperry, Book of Mormon Compendium (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968), 6–7.
  10. See, for example, John E. Clark, "Archaeology and Cumorah Questions," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 13/1 (2004): 144–151. off-site wiki; 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]),14–16.
  11. Dallin H. Oaks, "Historicity of the Book of Mormon," Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies Annual Dinner Provo, Utah, 29 October 1993; cited in Dallin H. Oaks, "The Historicity of the Book of Mormon," (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1994), 2-3. Reproduced in Dallin H. Oaks, "The Historicity of the Book of Mormon," in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 237–48.
  12. David A. Palmer, In Search of Cumorah: New Evidences for the Book of Mormon from Ancient Mexico (Bountiful: Horizon, 1981), 28–72.
  13. See Andrew H. Hedges, Cumorah and the Limited Mesoamerican Theory off-site and see also Edwin Goble, Resurrecting Cumorah, Second Revised Edition, May 2011.