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Joseph Smith's Opinion on Book of Mormon Geography

 

Garth Norman, an archeologist and president of the The Ancient American Foundation has recently (http://www.meridianmagazine.com/ideas/030930joseph.html) pointed out that Joseph Smith was responsible for the opinions published in the early LDS periodical Times and Seasons that identify Central America as the land of Zarahemla. He observes:

 

"In a Times and Seasons editorial, October 1, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith after progressive study announced a discovery that the Book of Mormon ‘land southward' is located in Central America (Middle America), which would be from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec .... south to Panama or at least Costa Rica, which as the Prophet pointed out, fits the description in Alma 22: 32 as the land that is ‘nearly surrounded by water.' Joseph's discovery resulted from studying an exciting new book by explorer John Lloyd Stevens (Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, 1841) that for the first time was bringing major exposure to the outside world of magnificent ancient Maya ruins hidden in the jungles of Middle America."

 

"In the spring of 1842, in consequence of too many errors appearing in print, the Prophet Joseph Smith took over the editorship [of the Times and Seasons periodical] and announced his personal responsibility for the contents of the paper (No. 9 of Vol. III, p. 710)."

 

"During the next six months he endeavored to raise the paper's standard of excellence before turning over the editorship to John Taylor, which he announced in the November 15, 1842 edition, and expressed confidence that Elder Taylor would maintain the high quality of excellence that had developed (History of the Church 5: 193). The Prophet required that any errors of information published be corrected...... It should be evident that no significant misinformation circulated during the Prophet's editorship without correction...."

 

These observations and comments made by Joseph Smith two years before his death, as editor of the Times and Seasons, lend great weight to the location of Nephite lands in Central America. The crucial statements by Joseph Smith are as follows: (full statements are located at bottom of page)

 

1. "They [the Nephites] lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found." Times and Seasons, vol. 3 (November 1841-October 1842), Vol. 3 No. 21 September 1, 1842 915.

 

2. [Under the title Zarahemla] "Since our 'Extract' was published from Mr. Stephens' 'Incidents of Travel,' &c., we have found another important fact relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon. Central America, or Guatemala [see note], is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien and once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south.—The city of Zarahemla, burnt at the crucifixion of the Savior, and rebuilt afterwards, stood upon this land as will be seen from the following words in the book of Alma:—'And now it was only the distance of a day and a half's journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful, and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and thus the land of Nephi, and the land of Zarahemla was nearly surrounded by water: there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward.' [See Book of Mormon 3d edition, p. 280-81, or current edition Alma 22:32.]

 

It is certainly a good thing for the excellency and veracity, of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, that the ruins of Zarahemla have been found where the Nephites left them: and that a large stone [referring to a stone found by Stephens] with engravings upon it, as Mosiah said; and a 'large round stone, with the sides sculptured in hieroglyphics,' as Mr. Stephens has published, is also among the left remembrances of the, (to him,) lost and unknown. We are not agoing to declare positively that the ruins of Quirigua are those of Zarahemla, but when the land and the stones, and the books tell the story so plain, we are of opinion, that it would require more proof than the Jews could bring to prove the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb, to prove that the ruins of the city in question, are not one of those referred to in the Book of Mormon." Times and Seasons, vol. 3 (November 1841-October 1842), Vol. 3 No. 22 September 15, 1842 927

 

3. "When we read in the Book of Mormon that Jared and his brother came on to this continent from the confusion and scattering at the Tower, and lived here more than a thousand years, and covered the whole continent from sea to sea, with towns and cities; and that Lehi went down by the Red Sea to the great Southern Ocean, and crossed over to this land, and landed a little south of the Isthmus of Darien [Isthmus of Panama]......" Times and Seasons, vol. 3 (November 1841-October 1842), Vol. 3 No. 22 September 15, 1842 927

 

What can we conclude from the above statements of Joseph Smith regarding the locations of the Book of Mormon lands?

 

1. First that he felt these lands were located in Central America.

 

2. He felt that the narrow neck of land embraces [or is included in] Central America.

 

3. He felt that the city of Zarahemla was located in Central America (old Guatemala).

 

4. He felt that the ruins of Quiriga (located in southeastern modern Guatemala) might be those of the city of Zarahemla or some other Nephite city.

 

5. He felt that Lehi's party landed a little south of the Isthmus of Panama.

 

If the prophets opinions are correct, they would localize the Nephite lands to Central America and eliminate those theories which advocate locations elsewhere.

 

Note

 

It should be noted that when the prophet spoke of Guatemala he was referring to more than the modern country of Guatemala as we know it. Under Spanish rule the area from Chiapas, Mexico south to Panama was known as the Captaincy of Guatemala and was governed as one unit. When these areas gained their independence in 1821 they attempted several different forms of government including the Republic of Central America before finally dividing into the various modern countries we have today. This modern division took place after the Prophet's death. When Joseph Smith comments that "Central America, or Guatemala, is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien and once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south" he is referring to to old boundaries of the Captaincy of Guatemala prior to the 1821 change, not to the modern country.  (map courtesy of Alexander Ganse http://www.zum.de/whkmla/region/xcamerica.html)

 

Full Text

 

I am including the full text of various statements made in the Times and Seasons regarding Book of Mormon geography which will be found below.

 

Times and Seasons, vol. 3 (November 1841-October 1842), Vol.. 3 No. 18 July 15, 1842 860.

 

If men, in their researches into the history of this country, in noticing the mounds, fortifications, statues, architecture, implements of war, of husbandry, and ornaments of silver, brass, &c.—were to examine the Book of Mormon, their conjectures would be removed, and their opinions altered; uncertainty and doubt would be changed into certainty and facts; and they would find that those things that they are anxiously prying into were matters of history, unfolded in that book. They would find their conjectures were more than realized—that a great and a mighty people had inhabited this continent—that the acts sciences and religion, had prevailed to a very great extent, and that there was as great and mighty cities on this continent as on the continent of Asia. Babylon, Ninevah, nor any of the of the Levant could boast of more perfect sculpture, batter architectural designs, and more imperishable , that what are found on this continent. Stephens and Catherwood's researches in Central America abundantly testify of this thing. The stupendous , the elegant sculpture, and the magnificence of the of Guatamala, and other cities, corroborate this statement, and show that a great and mighty people—men of great minds, clear intellect, bright genius, and comprehensive designs inhabited this continent. Their speak of their greatness; the Book of Mormen unfolds their history.—ED.

 

Times and Seasons, vol. 3 (November 1841-October 1842), Vol. 3 No. 21 September 1, 1842 915.

 

The foregoing extract [referring to a previous quotation from Steven's book] has been made to assist the Latter-Day Saints, in establishing the Book of Mormon as a revelation from God. It affords great joy to have the world assist us to so much proof, that even the most credulous cannot doubt. We are sorry that we could not afford the expense to give the necessary outs referred to in the original.

 

Let us turn our subject, however, to the Book of Mormon, where these wonderful ruins of Palenque are among the mighty works of the Nephites:—and the mystery is solved.

 

On the 72d page of the third and fourth edition of the Book of Mormon it reads as follows: And it came to pass that we began to prosper exceedingly, and to multiply in the land. And I, Nephi, did take the sword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many swords, lest by any means the people who were now called Lamanites, should come upon us and destroy us: for I knew their hatred towards me and my children, and those who were called my people. And I did teach my people, to build buildings: and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance. And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon, save it were not built of so many precious things: for they were not to be found upon the land; wherefore, it could not be built like un-to Solomon's temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceeding fine. And on page 280-1 is a full description of the Isthmus.

 

Mr. Stephens' great developements of antiquities are made bare to the eyes of all the people by reading the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. They lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found. Read the destruction of cities at the crucifixion of Christ, pages 459-60. Who could have dreamed that twelve years would have developed such incontrovertible testimony to the Book of Mormon? surely the Lord worketh and none can hinder.

 

Times and Seasons, vol. 3 (November 1841-October 1842), Vol. 3 No. 22 September 15, 1842 927.

 

"FACTS ARE STUBBORN THINGS."

 

From an extract from "Stephens' Incidents of Travel in Central America," it will be seen that the proof of the Nephites and Lamanites dwelling on this continent, according to the account in the Book of Mormon, is developing itself in a more satisfactory way than the most sanguine believer in that revelation, could have anticipated. It certainly affords us a gratification that the world of mankind does not enjoy, to give publicity to such important developements of the remains and ruins of those mighty people.

 

When we read in the Book of Mormon that Jared and his brother came on to this continent from the confusion and scattering at the Tower, and lived here more than a thousand years, and covered the whole continent from sea to sea, with towns and cities; and that Lehi went down by the Red Sea to the great Southern Ocean, and crossed over to this land, and landed a little south of the Isthmus of Darien, and improved the country according to the word of the Lord, as a branch of the house of Israel, and then read such a goodly traditionary account, as the one below, we can not but think the Lord has a hand in bringing to pass his strange act, and proving the Book of Mormon true in the eyes of all the people. The extract below, comes as near the real fact, as the four Evangelists do to the crucifixion of Jesus.—Surely "facts are stubborn things." It will be as it ever has been, the world will prove Joseph Smith a true prophet by circumstantial evidence, in experiments, as they did Moses and Elijah. Now read Stephens' story:

 

"According to Fuentes, the chronicler of the kingdom of Guatimala, the kings of Quinche and Cachiquel were descended from the Toltecan Indians, who, when they came into this country, found it already inhabited by people of different nations. According to the the manuscripts of Don Juan Torres, the grandson of the last king of the Quiches, which was in the possession of the lieutenant general appointed by Pedro de Alvarado, and which Fuentes says he obtained by means of Father Francis Vasques, the historian of the order of San Francis, the Tollecas themselves descended from the house of Israel, who were released by Moses from the tyranny of Pharaoh, and after crossing the Red Sea, fell into Idolatry. To avoid the reproofs of Moses or from fear of his inflicting upon them some chastisement, they separated from him and his brethren, and under the guidance of Tanub, their chief, passed from one continent to the other, to a place which they called the seven caverns, a part of the kingdom of Mexico, where they founded the celebrated city of Tula."

 

ZARAHEMLA.

 

Since our 'Extract' was published from Mr. Stephens' 'Incidents of Travel,' &c., we have found another important fact relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon. Central America, or Guatimala [see note], is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien and once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south.—The city of Zarahemla, burnt at the crucifixion of the Savior, and rebuilt afterwards, stood upon this land as will be seen from the following words in the book of Alma:—'And now it was only the distance of a day and a half's journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful, and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and thus the land of Nephi, and the land of Zarahemla was nearly surrounded by water: there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward.' [See Book of Mormon 3d edition, p. 280-81.]

 

It is certainly a good thing for the excellency and veracity, of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, that the ruins of Zarahemla have been found where the Nephites left them: and that a large stone with engravings upon it, as Mosiah said; and a 'large round stone, with the sides sculptured in hieroglyphics,' as Mr. Stephens has published, is also among the left remembrances of the, (to him,) lost and unknown. We are not agoing to declare positively that the ruins of Quirigua are those of Zarahemla, but when the land and the stones, and the books tell the story so plain, we are of opinion, that it would require more proof than the Jews could bring to prove the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb, to prove that the ruins of the city in question, are not one of those referred to in the Book of Mormon.

 

It may seem hard for unbelievers in the mighty works of God, to give credit to such a miraculous preservation of the remains, ruins, records and reminiscences of a branch of the house of Israel: but the elements are eternal, and intelligence is eternal, and God is eternal, so that the very hairs of our heads are all numbered. It may be said of man he was and is, and is not; and of his works the same, but the Lord was and is, and is to come and his works never end; and he will bring every thing into judgment whether it be good, or whether it be evil; yea, every secret thing, and they shall be revealed upon the house tops. It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens' ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon: light cleaves to light, and facts are supported by facts. The truth injures no one, and so we make another

 

(1)  Meridian Magazine