Category:Book of Mormon/Out of place in 19th century/Geography

The Book of Mormon Does Not Reflect Joseph Smith's Knowledge of 19th Century Geography

Parent page: Book of Mormon/Out of place in 19th century

Lehi's desert journey: Joseph Smith's Contemporary Authors

From Joseph Smith's era we need to review the published works of contemporary authors. Why? Because, some might suggest, Joseph Smith could have gained access to the information reported by classical authors about Arabia by consulting sources that relied on them and that had been written in or near Joseph Smith's era. The first two volumes of Carsten Niebuhr's Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern, dealing with Niebuhr's ill-fated expedition to Arabia from 1761 to 1767, were published in 1774 and 1778. Robert Heron translated and published these volumes in English in 1792 under the title Niebuhr's Travels through Arabia and Other Countries in the East. This work was reissued in 1799. We note that the only ancient tie to Arabia that Niebuhr discusses concerns the incense trade and the trees that produced the resin. The rest of his work consists of observations about Arabia of his day.39 But Niebuhr's map of south Arabia raises an important question, for it shows the area of the "Nehhm" tribe. This identification becomes an issue in light of recent studies because the Nehhm tribal area most probably links to "the place that was called Nahom" of Nephi's narrative ({{s|1|Nephi|16|34).40 Could Joseph Smith have obtained information from Niebuhr's map? No, because the English translation of Niebuhr's book and accompanying map were unavailable to him either at the Dartmouth library, which did not acquire a copy of the English translation until December 1937,41 or from John Pratt's library, which did not own it. Besides, there are problems with the geography of Niebuhr's map. He pictures the Nehhm tribal area as north of both the Hadramaut region and its main water course, the Wadi Masilah (mistakenly spelled Wadi Meidam by Niebuhr). Thus, according to Niebuhr's map, a traveler would go south from Nehhm to reach the Hadramaut area. But in fact a traveler would have to go eastward almost 150 miles across the Ramlat Sabcatayn desert. This eastward direction, incidentally, is preserved in Nephi's narrative, not in Niebuhr's map (see {{s|1|Nephi|17|1). (For further discussion about Nahom, see the sections below titled "Adopting the Name Nahom" and "Journey from Nahom to Bountiful.")

A second set of key works includes Jean-Baptiste d'Anville's geographical description of Arabia in his three-volume Géographie ancienne abrégée, which appeared in 1768. His map Prémièr Partie de la Carte d'Asie was printed in 1751 and notes for the first time in a Western publication the approximate location of the Nehem tribe in south Arabia.42 Before 1830 d'Anville's work appeared twice in English translations. John Horsley translated d'Anville's volumes, publishing them in 1814 as Compendium of Ancient Geography. The maps that appeared with this rendition are the most complete and are based on d'Anville's maps. Another translation of d'Anville's French work was Robert Mayo's An Epitome of Ancient Geography, which first appeared in 1818. The map of Arabia is much simpler than that which accompanied Horsley's translation. But neither of these English translations reached the Dartmouth library before Joseph Smith's family moved from the area. Likewise, d'Anville's map that notes the tribal area of Nehem was never part of the collections of either the Dartmouth library or John Pratt's library while Joseph Smith lived in these areas.43

The same can be said about Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Volume 5 of his original six-volume work came off the press in 1788. In this volume he devoted chapter 50 to a brief description of Arabia and the rise of Islam under Mohammed. Gibbon repeats straightforwardly what he has learned about Arabia from his sources, sometimes uncritically including the fantastic as if it were fact. As an example, he recalls the story of Agatharchides, alluded to by Diodorus Siculus, to the effect that "the soil was impregnated with gold and gems."44 In sum, his description of Arabia focuses on places and products of the region, showing topographical and economic interests. Such are foreign to Nephi's account.[1]

Lehi's desert journey: Libraries in Joseph Smith's era

A review of the holdings of John Pratt's Manchester lending library and those of Dartmouth College has yielded no evidence that any of the aforementioned works dealing with Arabia—classical or contemporary—existed in these two collections in Joseph Smith's day. They are simply absent from the accession lists of John Pratt's library. In the case of Dartmouth College, the library did not acquire any of these works until after 1830, except volume 2 of Horsley's English translation of d'Anville's work, which came to the library in 1823. Apparently only one of d'Anville's maps came with the translation, but which one is unknown; copies of forty maps came to the library in 1936. Dartmouth College acquired Edward Gibbon's famous historical work only in 1944 and the English translation of Niebuhr's volumes in 1937, much too late for Joseph Smith to have consulted them.45 Furthermore, the books in John Pratt's library that claimed to treat the ancient world deal with Arabia only in a general way, focusing almost exclusively on the northern area near the Persian Gulf.46 In this light it is safe to conclude that Joseph Smith did not enjoy access to works on Arabia in either of the libraries that lay near his home at one point or another in his youth. In a similar vein, any hypothesis that Joseph Smith had access to a private library that contained works on ancient Arabia is impossible to sustain.[2]

The description of Lehi's desert journey matches exactly how one would traverse Arabia

The entire thrust of these remarks underscores the observation that Joseph Smith could have known almost nothing about ancient Arabia when he began translating the Book of Mormon. Yet the narrative of the journey of the party of Lehi and Sariah through ancient Arabia, written by their son Nephi, fits with what we know about the Arabian Peninsula literally from one end to the other, for their journey began in the northwest and ended in the southeast sector. Nephi's narrative faithfully reflects the intertwining of long stretches of barren wilderness with pockets of verdant, lifesaving vegetation. Recent discoveries have illumined segments of the account, tying events to known regions (e.g.,) and climatic characteristics (e.g., mists along the coastal mountains). People in Joseph Smith's world may have possessed accurate information about one or two aspects of Arabia through classical sources (e.g., incense trade, honey production). But those same sources offered inaccurate caricatures of Arabia that Nephi's narrative does not mirror (e.g., that the peninsula was graced by large forests, etc.). Hence, on both fronts—modern discoveries and more accurate information—the Book of Mormon account shines as a radiant beam across the centuries, inviting us to adopt its more important message of spiritual truths as our own.[3]


  1. S. Kent Brown, "New Light from Arabia on Lehi's Trail," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 5, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  2. S. Kent Brown, "New Light from Arabia on Lehi's Trail," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 5, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  3. S. Kent Brown, "New Light from Arabia on Lehi's Trail," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 5, references silently removed—consult original for citations.