The Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Mormon geography

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The Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Mormon geography

Summary: Proponents of certain Book of Mormon geographical theories attempt to find clues in the Doctrine and Covenants.


Question: Does the fact that the Doctrine and Covenants refers to North American Indians as "Lamanites" contradict the theory that the Book of Mormon events took place in Mesoamerica?

By the time the Doctrine and Covenants was written, Lehi's descendants had ample time to migrate to the north and intermarry

The Doctrine and Covenants refers to North American Indians as "Lamanites":

Yea, and this was their faith—that my gospel, which I gave unto them that they might preach in their days, might come unto their brethren the Lamanites, and also all that had become Lamanites because of their dissensions. (DC 10:48)

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)

Since in the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord refers to American Indians in North America as "Lamanites" (e.g., DC 28:8-9,14, DC 30:6, DC 32:2, DC 54:8), does this cause problems for the Limited Geography Theory (LGT) or issues of Amerindian genetic data?

By the time the Doctrine and Covenants was written, Lehi's descendants had ample time to migrate and intermarry with the large number of "natives" postulated by the LGT. Such descendants are "Lamanites" in at least three senses:

  1. all shared descent from Lehi, to some degree.
  2. none embraced Nephite kingship or their doctrine of Christ, making them "Lamanites" politically.
  3. all were eligible for the covenant blessings promised to Lehi's descendants, if they would repent.

Joseph Smith was inspired by the Lord to use the term "Lamanite"

Joseph's use of the term "Lamanite" to describe all native American inhabitants, including those in Missouri, was inspired by the Lord. Joseph, and many Latter-day prophets since, have described the native inhabitants of the North and South American continents as Lamanites. So, how do these statements made by living prophets align with the possibility that the Book of Mormon occurred within a limited geographical region? We examine this in the following sections.

The Book of Mormon defines "Lamanites" as those that were not Nephites

The LGT is not a doctrine of the Church and there is no necessity to accept it as the only interpretation of the Book of Mormon text. Those who accept the LGT view it as the only theory that is consistent with the geographic descriptions and distances found in the Book of Mormon. The truth of the Book of Mormon does not depend, however, on proving or supporting the LGT.

The LGT assumes that a small number of Lehites were introduced into a larger "sea" of native peoples, most of whom were of presumably of Asiatic origin. Critics mistake the use of the term "Lamanite" as requiring descent from Lehi through his son, Laman. But, from very early in the Book of Mormon record, it is clear that the term "Lamanite" does not refer to descent, but to political and religious affiliation:

...I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings. (Jacob 1:14)

So, any person who wasn't a Nephite was, by exclusion, a Lamanite. Lamanites were not confined in any geographic sense at all.

The Lamanites occupied a region far greater than the limited geography described in the Book of Mormon

The LGT holds that the story of the Book of Mormon and the peoples with which it is concerned were confined to a narrow region, since this is all the area with which the authors of the Book of Mormon were directly concerned. Yet the Book of Mormon has several references that suggest a knowledge of and interaction with a much greater geographical area. The story of Hagoth (Alma 63:4-9) speaks not only of the shipbuilder and his movements northward (out of the general area referred to in the Book of Mormon) but also others that migrated to the north. In Helaman 3 we find other references to people migrating to the north:

And it came to pass in the forty and sixth [year], 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. And they did travel to an exceedingly great distance, insomuch that they came to large bodies of water and many rivers. Yea, and even they did spread forth into all parts of the land, into whatever parts it had not been rendered desolate and without timber, because of the many inhabitants who had before inherited the land. (Helaman 3:3-5)

The migration was out of the general area of the Book of Mormon story and is referred to as "an exceedingly great distance." This gives opportunity for Lamanites and Nephites to be found in all parts of the western hemisphere. There is no reason not to believe that similar migrations could have occurred to the south. Migrations to both the north and to the south were possibly more common than is recorded in the text.

The native Americans in the region where Joseph lived were Lamanites

Some people who first hear about the LGT wonder if this theory means that most modern native Americans are not actually descended from Laman. But the LGT does not imply this at all. Even under the LGT it is likely that every single native American in the hemisphere was a descendant of Laman by Joseph Smith's day. This would have been true even if Laman's direct descendants inhabited only a small area somewhere in the Americas in A.D. 400.

This doesn't mean that modern native Americans get the majority of their DNA from Laman or even that some genetic marker from Laman could be detected anywhere in the Americas. The LGT predicts that essentially every native American would be a literal descendant of Laman to some degree and yet all native Americans would have predominantly Asian DNA markers.

The nature of quotations found in the Doctrine & Covenants: Joseph clearly did not consider them word-for-word quotations from God

Many readers assume that revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants in which Joseph Smith speaks in God's voice to be direct word-for-word quotations from God. The recently published second volume of the Joseph Smith Papers REVELATION BOOK 1 (April 1829-B [D&C 8]), released by the Church's official Church History Press, provides greater insight into the process by which the revelations in the D&C arrived in their present form. The Church notes revisions in the revelations from their earliest form. A good example of this is the revelation concerning Oliver Cowdery's "gift"—this revelation was edited by Oliver Cowdery, William W. Phelps, Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith, John Whitmer, and one other unidentified editor. The Church has identified which specific edits each of these individuals made to the original revelation which eventually became D&C Section 8.

Joseph didn't claim to be hearing a voice or that he was simply taking dictation. Rather, impressions would come to him, which he would put into words. Joseph clearly did not consider them word-for-word quotations from God, since he, and others, felt comfortable revising them prior to publication.

The use of the term "Lamanites" to describe the American Indians was Joseph's word choice based upon inspiration. The few personal statements he made on Book of Mormon geography indicate that he believed it took place on a hemispheric scale, so it would follow that he believed that all Native Americans were pure descendants of Laman, and hence were literal "Lamanites." Even so, as noted in the preceding section, all of the inhabitants of the North and South American continents are considered to be Lamanites, and can likely count Lehi among their ancestry.


Question: Was Zarahemla located near present-day Nauvoo?

The intent of this revelation seems to have been to encourage obedience to Joseph's instructions, whether about the name of towns or the locations for settlement

It is claimed that D&C 125: identifies a city as Zarahemla, and this was intended to be a revelatory declaration of the location of the Nephite city of Zarahemla from the Book of Mormon.

The intent of this revelation seems to have been to encourage obedience to Joseph's instructions, whether about the name of towns or the locations for settlement. An exhortation to obedience (a more spiritually vital message) seems more plausible than an oblique revelation of an obscure point of Book of Mormon geography, which none of the recipients noted anyway. Neither Joseph or anyone else described this as the site of the Nephite Zarahemla,[1] and at least two apostles have rejected the idea that anyone knows the location of Zarahemla via revelation.

The claim that the revelation in D&C 125 refers to the Nephite Zarahemla is dubious

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.[2]

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

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?[3]

In addition to this disavowal, and the Church's insistence that no official geography has been revealed outside the Book of Mormon text itself, there are textual problems with this claim.

D&C 125 was not the first application of the name Zarahemla to the area

In fact, D&C 125 was not the first application of the name Zarahemla to the area—Joseph examined the site near Montrose, Iowa on July 2, 1839, and "advised that a town be built there, and called Zarahemla." The History of the Church clearly indicates that this tract of land had recently been purchased by Bishop Knight with the intent of building a town upon it. Joseph Smith simply suggested a name for the new gathering place.[4] If Joseph had known by revelation that this was the site of the Nephite Zarahemla, it seems strange that he said nothing then or later, given his obvious keen interest in Book of Mormon locations.

Little was done across the river, despite Joseph's instructions, until the March 1841 revelation, whose probable intent becomes more clear when read in context. In response to the question, "What is the will of the Lord concerning the saints in the Territory of Iowa?," the Lord replies, " if those who call themselves by my name and are essaying to be my saints, if they will do my will and keep my commandments concerning them, let them gather themselves together unto the places which I shall appoint unto them by my servant Joseph, and build up cities unto my name…."[5]

Obedience is being emphasized, not a geographic identification. Notice also that the Lord specifically stated that Zarahemla, Iowa was being appointed by Him as a gathering place for the Saints (along with Nashville, Iowa). He said nothing about the location having any historical significance.

The geography of the Mississippi also makes the identification of Zarahemla questionable

The geography of the Mississippi also makes the identification of Zarahemla questionable. In the Book of Mormon, the River Sidon near Zarahemla could be crossed on foot by troops during battle (Alma 2:27–35). Despite this fact, one proponent of this claim tells us elsewhere that American bison "won't swim [across a body of water] if they can't clearly see the other side. And so when they get their heads down low, like a buffalo is, this is the Mississippi River at Nauvoo, this is a long swim. The buffalo wouldn't cross there."[6]

This claim is self-contradictory. It asserts that the Mississippi at Nauvoo is too wide for buffalo to swim—yet, it insists that the Nephite Zarahemla is located right across the Mississippi from Nauvoo, and so the model requires that troops be able to ford it. During an April 1842 visit, the anti-Mormon author Henry Caswall reported that the Mississippi between Montrose and Nauvoo was "about a mile and a half in width." He crossed by canoe, and noted that "at length the stout sinews of the Mormons prevailed….[and a]fter labouring hard [paddling] for more than half an hour we safely landed at Nauvoo."[7] It is difficult to see how Alma and his men could ford the river anywhere near the Zarahemla of Joseph Smith's day.

There is one location on the Mississippi which is not deep, but presents a different set of obstacles to crossing the river on foot. The Des Moines Rapids, located between Nauvoo and Keokuk, Illinois were, according to Wikipedia, "one of two major rapids on the Mississippi River that limited Steamboat traffic on the river through the early 19th century." While it is true that the area of the rapids wasn't deep, it isn't true that it could be therefore crossed safely. Anyone who has had whitewater experience will know that you absolutely do not attempt to cross a river where rapids are present. Rapids are comprised of shallow water flowing very swiftly through and around projections of rock. If an army is attempting to cross the river at the area of a rapid, assuming that they can even retain their footing, they are also expending the energy to fight the current. Rapids are a very dangerous place to attempt a river crossing.
  1. There is, for example, no mention of any connection between the Montrose, Iowa area or nearby Zarahemla Stake with the Nephite Zarahemla in such works as Richard E. Bennett, "Montrose, Iowa," in Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History, edited by Donald Q. Cannon, Richard O. Cowan, Arnold K. Garr (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co., 2000). or Stanley B. Kimball, "Nauvoo West: The Mormons of the Iowa Shore," Brigham Young University Studies 18 (Winter 1978), 132–142.
  2. Anthony W. Ivins, Conference Report (April 1929), 16.
  3. Harold B. Lee, “Loyalty,” address to religious educators, 8 July 1966; in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd ed. (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.
  4. History of the Church, 3:382. Volume 3 link
  5. D&C 125:1-2(italics added)
  6. Rodney Meldrum, DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography: New scientific support for the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon; Correlation and Verification through DNA, Prophetic, Scriptural, Historical, Climatological, Archaeological, Social, and Cultural Evidence (Rodney Meldrum, 2007), mail-order DVD. ( Index of claims ) Quote is from Section #8, "Buffalo Evidence," 1:10-2:30 (approx time stamp).
  7. Rev. Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons: Or, Three Days at Nauvoo in 1842 (London: Rivington, 1842), 3-4.