Part 6: CES Letter Book of Mormon Questions [Section E]
by Sarah Allen
I was originally hoping to finish all of the remaining Book of Mormon questions in this entry, but when I started compiling it all, it was just way too long. So I’m going to jump around a little bit on this one. I’ll tackle the View of the Hebrews, The Late War, and The First Book of Napoleon stuff in the final entry for this section next week, and talk about the Vernal Holley maps, Comoros/Captain Kidd, and Trinitarianism in this one.
The ones about the Vernal Holley maps and the ones about the supposed sources for the Book of Mormon crack me up. They’re just really, really bad questions, and so very dishonest in their framing.
Book of Mormon Geography: Many Book of Mormon names and places are strikingly similar to many local names and places of the region where Joseph Smith lived.
Jeremy Runnells fully admits that this is the weakest section of the CES Letter, and at one point, he was almost positive he was going to remove it. However, other members of the Exmormon subreddit convinced him to leave it in because they somehow felt it was effective.
The thing is, he wasn’t wrong. It’s pretty weak.
The first thing he does is post two maps made by Vernal Holley:
The first map is the “proposed map,” constructed from internal comparisons in the Book of Mormon.
Nope. The first map is just the second map with Book of Mormon names scattered around, and they’re in the wrong places they’d need to be in if they were actually “constructed from internal comparisons to the Book of Mormon.”
As Scott Gordon says in “CES Letter: Proof or Propaganda?”: “It isn’t constructed from internal comparisons in the Book of Mormon. Nothing is in the right place from internal directions. This is not a Book of Mormon map. This is a map of upstate New York and Pennsylvania with some Book of Mormon names pasted in on locations that start with the same few letters. It doesn’t even include Zarahemla or Bountiful.”
This is one of those claims that would be humorously ironic if not for the fact that it has caused some members’ testimonies to stumble. Critics who throw up their hands and reject the much stronger evidence of Arabia’s Nahom (which is in the right place, and the right time, and marks a direction where an ancient trail turns at the right time and leads to a second location that supports another Book of Mormon geographical marker at the right place at the right time with the right resources) jump with excitement at the supposed similarities between some of the names in Joseph Smith’s vicinity and proper nouns in the Book of Mormon.
Critics know … that their argument lacks punch unless they can show that the proper nouns were readily accessible to Joseph Smith—thereby giving the illusion that they were names he sponged from his environment.
There are at least four major problems with the critics’ theory that Joseph pilfered names from his environment when writing the Book of Mormon: 1) Many of the cities on the list aren’t even close to what we find in the Book of Mormon; 2) Some of the cities were not even known by their current names in Joseph Smith’s day; 3) The locations of the cities don’t match what we should expect for a map of Book of Mormon geography; and 4) If you draw a large enough circle over any group of cities, you’ll find a bunch of coincidental similarities.
The size of the circle which critics include for Book of Mormon names is almost 200,000 square miles in area. LDS researchers have shown that the same Gee-this-looks-like-a-Book-of- Mormon-name game can be played by drawing a circle around Virginia or Hawaii—areas smaller than the critics’ map—with even greater success. This is known as the “sharp shooter’s fallacy.”
Jimbo claims he is an expert marksman. To prove his point he shows you the side of a barn with 10 bullet holes all confined inside of chalk-drawn circle. After Jimbo walks away with a smile, Linda-Kay tells you that Jimbo was shooting at the knot-hole on one of the wood slats on the barn’s wall. Not one bullet hit the knot-hole—didn’t even come close. But after finishing his 10 shots, he drew a circle around the bullet holes making it appear that his aim was the circle instead of the knot-hole.
Ryan Larsen of Mormon Puzzle Pieces found a similar list of names in Iran. That’s because these types of lists are really easy to make, when a great number of our cities and those of the Book of Mormon are all based on Biblical names and naming structures.
Many places have similar names. That’s just a fact. An example lampooning this is The Simpsons. The town is named Springfield because there’s a Springfield in more than half of the US states:
The show is intentionally evasive in regard to Springfield’s location. Springfield’s geography, and that of its surroundings, contains coastlines, deserts, vast farmland, tall mountains, or whatever the story or joke requires. [Matt Groening] “figured out that Springfield was one of the most common names for a city in the U.S. In anticipation of the success of the show, I thought, ‘This will be cool; everyone will think it’s their Springfield.’ And they do.”
Regarding the Vernal Holley maps, towns are in the wrong places so there was clearly no “internal comparison” done with the Book of Mormon. As FAIR points out in great detail:
- Jacobugath is in the southwest corner of the map, while the Book of Mormon places it far to the north (3 Nephi 7:9-12 and 3 Nephi 9:9)
- Morianton should be near the city of Lehi, which is located near the Sea East (Alma 50:25), but the map places near the Sea West;
- Ramah and Cumorah should be the same place (Ether 15:11), but the map puts it in Ontario, rather than Palmyra like Jeremy repeatedly insisted it was (a distance of approximately 280 miles);
- Alma should be between Lehi-Nephi and Zarahemla to the north, not far to the west (Mosiah 18:30-34, Mosiah 23:1-4 and 19, and Mosiah 24:20 and 24-25);
- Kishkumen is only mentioned once in all of the Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 9:10), and there’s not enough information to place it anywhere, but the map picks a location at random, simply because it’s vaguely similar to a name in Pennsylvania;
- Shurr should be near the eastern seashore (Ether 14:26 and 28), but the map places it way off in the middle of nowhere; etc.
Additionally, many of these places Jeremy seeks to compare did not exist at the time of the translation of the Book of Mormon, or were impossible to find on any maps even if they did exist. Many of them could also be found in the Bible, if Joseph Smith was keen on stealing names. The following information is taken from FAIR and Jim Bennett’s rebuttal to the Letter:
- The map places Alma in West Virginia, but that city was a tiny, unincorporated town called Centerville at the time. Jeremy then offers up Alma, NY as another possible location, but that town didn’t exist until the early 1830s and was called various things like Honeoye, Honeoye Springs, or Shongo for years until settling on Alma.
- Antioch, OH, was not founded until 1837. Antioch, WV, was not named that until 1880.
- Boaz, WV, was named that in 1878.
- Connor, up in Canada, was named after a place in Ireland in 1865.
- Ephrem was actually called Saint-Éphrem-de-Beauce, Quebec, and didn’t exist until 1866.
- Jacobsburg doesn’t appear on any maps until the year after the Book of Mormon was published.
- Jerusalem is only 0.2 square miles and doesn’t show up on any maps then or even now, and obviously, the Jerusalem of the Bible would be a much more likely inspiration, anyway.
- The same goes for Jordan, which was unincorporated until 1835, but does show up on a map in 1827.
- Kiskiminetas Township, PA, was named that in 1832.
- Mantua Village, OH, was incorporated in 1898.
- Monroe, NY, was founded in 1808, but didn’t appear on any maps until after 1831.
- Minoa, NY, was named in 1895.
- Morin Township, Quebec, was founded in 1852.
- Noah Lake, OH, was created when the Nimisila Reservoir was built in 1936.
- Omer can’t be found on any maps of NY, PA, or Canada, past or present.
- The Rama Indian Reserve didn’t exist until 1836, but it seems Rama Township did exist before then.
- Ripple Lake is so tiny, it’s hard to find even on modern maps let alone maps from 1830, and is surrounded by 250,000 other equally tiny lakes in the Ontario area.
- Shiloh, PA, is not actually a real town. It’s a Census Designated Place that was established for statistical purposes.
- There is no Midian on any map of PA, and it’s another name from the Bible.
- A tiny fishing village named Hyatt’s Mill was indeed renamed Sherbrooke in 1818, but was still called Hyatt’s Mill by nearly everyone until 1832 when the British arrived.
So, all in all, there are about 5-8 names that Joseph potentially could have lifted off maps or out of the Bible if he somehow couldn’t invent any other possible names. But there’s no evidence of Joseph consulting a Bible or any maps prior to or during the translation of the Book of Mormon, either.
Also, as an aside, the disclaimer Jeremy said he was probably going to put in? Nowhere to be found. He continues to present this information as if it’s accurate, even when he knows full well that it’s not.
The other thing that just kills me about this section is that he went on and on about how the Hill Cumorah had to be the hill in New York, or the Book of Mormon couldn’t be true. And yet, for this section, he moves it to somewhere in Ontario because that’s the only place with a name somewhat similar that would fit. But who cares about being internally consistent, right? (Credit to Reddit user Stisa79 for this compilation.)
Off the eastern coast of Mozambique in Africa is an island country called “Comoros.” Prior to its French occupation in 1841, the islands were known by its Arabic name, “Camora.” There is an 1808 map of Africa that refers to the islands as “Camora.” The largest city and capital of Comoros (formerly “Camora”)? Moroni. “Camora” and settlement “Moroni” were names in pirate and treasure hunting stories involving Captain William Kidd (a pirate and treasure hunter) which many 19th century New Englanders – especially treasure hunters – were familiar with.
To begin with, the “largest city and capital of Comoros” was a tiny village not mentioned on any maps or in any Gazetteers or map indexes prior to its being named the capital city in 1876. Its name was not even “Moroni,” but “Meroni” before that point. As Jim Bennett points out, “There’s no contemporaneous source through which Joseph could have found the name Moroni, let alone made a connection between these two names.”
As to the line about Camora and Moroni being names “many 19th century New Englanders were familiar with,” Bennett goes on to say, “No, they weren’t. If they were, those like Grant Palmer and others who lean heavily on the Captain Kidd theory for Moroni and Cumorah’s origins would be able to provide actual references from such stories to back this up, particularly if they were ‘common names,’ which, given the obscurity of the Comora reference and the non-existent pre-1830 references to the Moroni settlement, they clearly were not. Near as I can tell, no such citations exist. (You certainly don’t provide any.) And if these really were common names in popular stories, then why do none of Joseph’s legion of critics notice the supposedly obvious Kidd/Cumorah/ Moroni connection during Joseph’s lifetime? Why do we have to wait until Grant Palmer comes along in the 21st Century before anyone notices it at all?”
The map found in the Irish 1808 The General Gazetteer has the island labeled as “Comora,” and while there are other instances of it being named that, the likelihood of Joseph ever seeing any of those obscure Gazetteers is slim. There are no records whatsoever of him making routine—or even rare—trips to the nearest university library. Public libraries in the early 1800s were rare and supported by subscription fees, not free to the public like they are today. The Smiths, being so destitute they had to hire out to others as day laborers and still lost their farm, would not have been able to afford membership in a library, even if there were any in their vicinity. There is no evidence Joseph had ever heard of Comoros or Meroni at any point before his death, let alone before translating the Book of Mormon.
In fact, the uniform spelling for Hill Cumorah in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon is spelled “Camorah.”
The printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon actually used multiple different spellings for “Cumorah”: “Camorah” once, “Cumorah” six times, and “Comorah” twice. It was the printer, E.B. Grandin, who standardized the name as “Camorah,” not Joseph. In fact, Joseph was the one who had the name changed in subsequent editions to “Cumorah,” and even Oliver Cowdery admits the previous spelling was a mistake:
By turning to the 529th and 530th pages of the book of Mormon you will read Mormon’s account of the last great struggle of his people, as they were encamped round this hill Cumorah. (It is printed Camorah, which is an error.)
At the link above, FAIR also explains this change in the spelling makes the name more consistent with other Book of Mormon names, like “Teancum,” “Cumenihah,” “Cumeni,” “Mocum,” “Moriancumer,” and “Ripliancum.”
Runnells expounds at length about Pomeroy Tucker remembering Joseph’s reading habits from 50 years before, which is a seriously odd thing to remember about some kid several years younger than you who lived in the same town for a few years but whom you didn’t hang around with. I don’t even remember what books my very best friends loved 20 years ago. Tucker talks about Captain Kidd stories and how Joseph loved to read them, despite “dime novels” not existing yet, which completely contradicts what everyone else who knew Joseph had to say: that he didn’t care much for reading. In fact, his own mother said that he was the least likely of all her children to spend any time reading.
Another thing worth noting is that Captain Kidd never mentioned Comoros, Camora, Meroni, Moroni, or anything else in any of his stories, letters, or writing. Scott Gordon explains, “The problem is that Captain Kidd stories don’t mention Camora or Moroni. At all. Even Pomeroy Tucker doesn’t claim they did. If there is a reference I’ve missed, it means Joseph Smith managed to find something that a 21st century researcher with Google couldn’t find. For those really interested, Comoros is mentioned in literature in 1844, 1863, 1864 and 1885. But that wouldn’t be relevant as that was all after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. In his letters, Kidd himself refers to the nearby islands of Madagascar, Johanna, and Mahala, but he says nothing of Camora or Moroni.”
And, as Michael Ash illustrates, it’s even more silly than that:
First, there is no evidence that stories of “Camora” were being circulated in Joseph’s vicinity (or that it was mentioned in any Captain Kidd stories in his day). Second, we have to ask some questions about Joseph’s supposed use of Camora as well as all the other cities which he supposedly lifted from his more local environment: Why? What in the world would be Joseph’s reason?
Trying to understand this from a critic’s point of view—based on the theory above (the one in Joseph Smith’s backyard)—it seems that Joseph really liked the name Camora. And what luck; he had found a city name he could sponge from a foreign land because not a single local town’s name would work. Why? Why wouldn’t a local name work when they supposedly worked for other Book of Mormon cities? The critics don’t tell us.
… But, there was that pesky problem again of it being recognized by more educated citizens than himself. After all, everybody in town had heard the whaler and treasure digging stories about Camora.
… Once again, the ruse (according to the critics’ theory) obviously worked. No one—not anyone from Joseph’s family or town or any of the local whalers, ministers, scholars, treasure diggers, believers, or critics—noticed that Joseph simply cloaked Camora in a fancy new dress.
The Book of Mormon taught and still teaches a Trinitarian view of the Godhead. Joseph Smith’s early theology also held this view. As part of the over 100,000 changes to the Book of Mormon, there were major changes made to reflect Joseph’s evolved view of the Godhead.
The vast majority of those “100,000 changes” were things like punctuation and spelling, but Jeremy doesn’t want you to know that. He only wants to say a large number to make you doubt that the Book of Mormon is the word of God.
The original manuscript was delivered to the printer without any punctuation and numerous spelling errors, including errors where the same name was spelled multiple times, like we saw with the Cumorah example. Adding those changes, and then later correcting the printer’s decided punctuation/spellings to what was deemed more correct, constituted a large percentage of those changes. Others were sentences that made for really awkward English phrases, but actually made for excellent Hebrew wording, according to Brad Wilcox.
As for the supposedly Trinitarian doctrine contained in the Book of Mormon, Michael Ash says this:
First, as LDS scholars have pointed out, the Book of Mormon’s view of the Godhead is actually very much in line with early Israelite views—which were not found in the Trinitarian views of Joseph Smith’s day.
Second, a thorough reading of the Book of Mormon shows that while some verses are ambiguous and might be interpreted to support a Trinitarian God, a large portion of the verses are less ambiguous and denote that Jesus and the Father are two separate beings. After the initial printing of the Book of Mormon Joseph went through the book and changed the more ambiguous verses to clarify the differences between the Father and the Son.
The critics’ argument is, once again, based on a superficial reading of the text with the end goal of mining the book to find the parallels they want to see rather than the more complex parallels that really exist with real old world beliefs.
The concept of the Trinity is a tricky one and different denominations of Christianity view it differently, despite the Creeds being established to try to standardize the doctrine. Critics have long claimed that the doctrine is incoherent and I personally happen to agree with them…and so does Elder Holland:
These various evolutions and iterations of creeds—and others to come over the centuries—declared the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be abstract, absolute, transcendent, immanent, consubstantial, coeternal, and unknowable, without body, parts, or passions and dwelling outside space and time. In such creeds all three members are separate persons, but they are a single being, the oft-noted “mystery of the trinity.” They are three distinct persons, yet not three Gods but one. All three persons are incomprehensible, yet it is one God who is incomprehensible.
We agree with our critics on at least that point—that such a formulation for divinity is truly incomprehensible.
The common model of the Trinity you think of when you hear the word is that God the Father, Christ the Only Begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit are all different manifestations of the same Being, despite several instances where They were each reflected in the same scene in the New Testament. It doesn’t make much sense to me personally, but that is supposedly “one of the mysteries of God” and can’t—and shouldn’t—be explained, according to mainstream Christians I’ve known. It’s all very confusing and it puts the Savior and the Father at a distance from us that our doctrine does not. I truly don’t believe that Christ or our Father want to be an unknowable mystery to us. They want us to know Them.
Thankfully, though, the Book of Mormon does not, in fact, teach mainstream Trinitarianism, so we don’t really have to worry about any of that.
A few weeks before his death, Joseph Smith said the following:
I wish to declare I have always and in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of the Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods. It has been preached by the Elders for fifteen years.
I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods. If this is in accordance with the New Testament, lo and behold! we have three Gods anyhow, and they are plural: and who can contradict it?
Jeremy would have us believe that’s a lie, but he’s incorrect. As Brian Hales explains, “The CES Letter’s author’s confusion may come because God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are a social Trinity. The word Trinity merely means three, three Beings who are one in purpose is still a Trinity, but not as the Christian creeds describe. John 17:22 recounts how Jesus prays that the apostles may be ‘one even as we are one.’ That is, the ‘oneness’ that Jesus asks the apostles to have is modeled by the oneness that Jesus has with his father. This makes for a social Trinity, not a metaphysical Trinity.” [Note: Hales cites the wrong verse in this link, and I corrected it here. Typos happen!]
In his article for the Interpreter entitled “Eye of the Beholder, Law of the Harvest,” comparing and contrasting Jeremy’s outcome with Jeff Lindsay’s, Kevin Christensen reminds us of 2 Nephi 25:5, which says:
… [T]here is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews.
Christensen goes on to explain that this is important, because the mistake Jeremy makes here is that he doesn’t understand the way that ancient Israelites understood the Godhead:
In The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, Margaret Barker explains that in “the Bible, there are those called the sons of El Elyon, sons of El or Elohim, all clearly heavenly beings, and there are those called sons of Yahweh or the Holy One who are human. This distinction is important for at least two reasons: Yahweh was one of the sons of El Elyon; and Jesus in the Gospels was described as a Son of El Elyon, God Most High … Jesus is not called the son of Yahweh nor the son of the Lord, but he is called Lord.”
Notice that in the Book of Mormon, during Nephi’s vision, the angel says, “Blessed art thou, Nephi, because thou believest in the Son of the most high God.” (1 Nephi 11:6). The Book of Mormon takes me into First Temple Judaism, back to 600 BCE, Lehi’s day. This passage occurs in the same chapter as two of the verses that Runnells uses as proof texts for his arguments, and therefore, provides context that his proof-text reading neglects.
Runnells had complained about the verse with the change regarding the virgin as “the mother of [the son] of God.” The Book of Mormon clearly identifies Jesus as the son of God Most High. If we understand that the God of the Old Testament is Yahweh, son of El Elyon, then the added “son of” is just clarification, explanation for readers in 1837, not a theological change. Jesus has a Father in Heaven who testifies of him, and to whom he prays and reports. In the Book of Mormon, Jesus identifies himself as Yahweh, the lord of the Old Testament, declaring that “I am he that gave the law, and I am he that covenanted with my people Israel,” (3 Nephi 15:5). In Benjamin’s discourse those who covenant with Jesus/Yahweh become “the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters.” (Mosiah 5:7. Compare 3 Nephi 9:17). So Jesus both has a father who bears witness of him (3 Nephi 11:7) and to whom he prays (3 Nephi 17:14) and is a father via covenant and creation, and therefore is both a father and a son, both God (Yahweh), and a Son of God (a son of El Elyon, God Most High). Because I am both a father and a son, I don’t find this a difficult concept. It is simply a matter of paying attention to context to understand when and how and why a particular title and role applies.
… In these two particular verses from 1 Nephi, I think adding “the son of” to the phrase “the mother of God” does not actually change the meaning, if you know the context—if you know that Jesus/Yahweh is God in the Old Testament, and also Son of the Most High God. The change was apparently done to appease the discomfort that those LDS of Protestant cultural heritage may have felt with seemingly Catholic concepts. If you know the correct cultural context, the change was not necessary. But 19th century readers did not have the same access to that pre-exilic cultural context. … Jesus as the Lamb/Servant of God, the Eternal Father is accurate because Jesus/Yahweh has roles as Eternal Father by way of a covenant relationship with humans, as the passages in Mosiah and 3 Nephi demonstrate. Jesus/Yahweh also has an Eternal Father, as his own prayers and teachings and the testifying voice demonstrate. This is a distinction that doesn’t really make a difference theologically, though it may do so referentially. But El Elyon’s Fatherhood is not removed or compromised by recognizing Yahweh’s and vice versa. It is just a matter of us bringing the best context to our reading.
As for why Joseph felt it necessary to change these phrases, Christensen explained, “The Aramaic translations (or commentaries) of the Old Testament are called Targums and are notable for containing, in many instances, explanatory material not included in the Hebrew, but helpful for explaining the best way to understand key passages, at least by those who created that translation. And as the 1828 Webster’s definition pointed out, ‘explain’ is a valid meaning of translate. (A translation that cannot be understood properly is not much of a translation.) So we have both conspicuous examples of explanation being part of a legitimate translation in the Targums, and a definition of translate contemporary with Joseph Smith that includes explanation.”
As the translator for the Book of Mormon, part of Joseph’s duty, according to the understanding of his day, was to explain that which he was translating. Because there was some confusion over these verses, he made minor changes to clarify the meaning. And, bringing it full circle back to Hales’s comments, Christensen goes on to say this:
Runnells claims that “many verses still in the Book of Mormon … hold a Trinitarian view of the Godhead.” Please keep in mind that for Runnells’s complaints to make sense, we have to assume that he is talking about a conventional creedal metaphysical Trinity which postdates the New Testament. But it helps to remember that a social Trinity is still a Trinity, since the word merely means three. The issue is whether a close contextual reading of the Book of Mormon leads to a metaphysical Trinity, or to a social Trinity. I have found that contextualizing is a much better approach than reading passages of ancient scripture in isolation, and interpreting them against what usually turns out to be anachronistic assumptions.
… As a reader who knows about First Temple theology, and who considers many other important Book of Mormon passages that Runnells does not address, I know that Yahweh, God of the Old Testament, is a Son of El Elyon, God Most High, and that Yahweh/Jesus becomes the father of humans who covenant with him. Yahweh is the creator of the earth. In light of the different context I bring to the same passages that Runnells cites, I don’t have the same problems he does.
If you read cherry-picked verses out of context, that can sometimes lead to misunderstandings of the doctrine being discussed. That is what happened here, both because Runnells didn’t seek the wider context within the text itself, and because he apparently doesn’t realize that Jews from 600 BCE had a very different understanding of the Godhead than modern-day Christians do.
The main thing I wanted to point out in this section is that, once again, Jeremy is doing the exact same thing I mentioned in last week’s entry: he’s assuming one thing, and is insisting that everything be exactly as he assumed it to be or it can’t possibly be true. He doesn’t allow room for errors of his own misunderstanding. He insists that those cherry-picked verses have to mean what he says they mean, and not what ancient Israelites would have actually meant.
If we’re ever going to grow and progress in our understanding of the Gospel, we have to learn how to avoid this trap. We have to allow room for our assumptions to be wrong. We have to accept and accommodate new information, and try to understand how that new information colors our understanding of the doctrine being taught. We have to allow the Spirit to teach us new information, and we have to allow Heavenly Father to reveal new light and knowledge to us as we study. If we close ourselves off to that, we’re just going to end up confused, angry, and bitter, just like Jeremy did. And I hope and pray we can all avoid that particular fate.
Sources in this entry: