Source:Echoes:Ch9:3:Geographical consistency

Geographical consistency

Geographical consistency

The Book of Mormon contains hundreds of statements related to the geography of the Nephites' "land of promise." When all of them are collated, a picture of the physical setting emerges that is highly consistent. Inconsistencies that might be expected of the author of a fraudulent work (such as locating a particular named city in different spots at different points in the story) are notably absent in the Book of Mormon. Yet Joseph Smith himself later made statements by way of commentary that contradict what the text says of its geography. That is, when Smith freshly dictated the text of the scripture, the geography came out fine; but his private interpretations of the geography could err.

A prime example occurs in a statement recorded in a journal dated to 1838. A group of travelers passing through Randolph County, Indiana, was given to understand by local members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that "the ancient site of the [Nephite] city of Manti" was thereabouts.10 No direct attribution to Joseph Smith is made, but it is doubtful that anyone would have drawn this conclusion unless the Prophet, who had traveled the route, had said something like this. Actually, when all the statements about Manti that appear in the Nephite account are examined together, they can only be interpreted to show that the city of Manti lay south of "the narrow neck of land" and the city of Zarahemla and was near the headwaters of the northward-flowing Sidon River. A very neat fit for the relationships of the land and city of Manti as reported in the scriptural text is found in southernmost Mexico, and city ruins in the vicinity date to Book of Mormon times.11 But the suggested correlation in Indiana completely fails to fit the statements in the Nephite account. It would appear that Joseph Smith and his close associates had not personally grasped the geographical scheme that the book itself consistently reveals.

To recapitulate, when Joseph Smith-as-translator dictated the text of the Book of Mormon to his scribes, he produced a seamless, plausible geography of limited scale, but when Smith-as-mere-Joseph later commented on geography, the picture he communicated is that all South and North America were involved. This inconsistency is not what the author of a work of fiction—as naysayers often suppose Joseph to have been—would show. Were Joseph the sly schemer he is accused of being, he surely would have done two things differently in this regard: (1) inevitably he would have let geographical inconsistencies slip in during his hasty dictation of the text, and (2) thereafter he would have kept his mouth shut about matters of location lest the problems he knew could be present in the book he had created should be exposed by his offhand comments. He did neither.

There is a corollary to this point. The statements in the Book of Mormon describe a land of limited extent (a few hundred miles long) that had certain specific physical features (in configuration, topography, bodies of water, climate, and geology). Analyses of the text of the scripture in the last six decades have made this clear. Those characteristics fit remarkably well with the geography of Mesoamerica. Yet later statements by Joseph and his early associates reveal that he supposed that the entire Western Hemisphere had been occupied by Nephites and Lamanites. In other words, his personal interpretation of the book's geography differed in some respects from what the record itself stipulates. If we were to suppose, with many of Smith's critics, that he somehow wrote the Book of Mormon out of his own mind and knowledge, it is difficult to see how he would have interpreted this aspect of his "own literary work" inconsistently.[1]


  1. John W. Sorenson, "How Could Joseph Smith Write So Accurately about Ancient American Civilization?," 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 9, references silently removed—consult original for citations.