A NEW MODEL FOR BOOK OF MORMON GEOGRAPHY
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"The continuing failure of Book of Mormon geographical studies to produce substantive conclusions has resulted from an almost complete misidentification of the archaeological Jaredites. Virtually all students are adrift on a sea of Nephite studies based upon Jaredite archaeological remains. The consequences of this misidentification have been far-reaching and devastating, for so much effort has been expended in a search for the archaeological Nephite culture, that the identification and study of the archaeological Jaredites have been seriously neglected."*
Having studied the geography of the Book of Mormon for many years, and finding none of the published geographies which fit all the criteria, which in my mind are required, and feeling that an understanding of the correct geography would greatly enhance understanding of this scripture, and increase faith in its teachings, I have decided to examine the issues on my own, attempting to develop a model which will resolve the difficulties and bring together the loose ends. Hopefully this will encompass all the criteria, and fit all the features required by the Book of Mormon without juggling the geography or moving continental margins. And although I do not have an advanced degree in any of the requisite areas, and am not acknowledged as an experienced scholar, hopefully my presumption will not be offensive to those who are, and my offered insights will shed some light on the subject.
What is the current status of BofM geography studies?
Obviously much has been done and many issues clarified since the Book of Mormon was revealed to the world. Many books and papers have been written including major works by John Sorenson, Hugh Nibley, David Palmer, Richard Hauck, Fletcher Hammond, Nile Washburn, Michael Hobby, Paul Cheesman, and others. Some of these have been more helpful than others; but all of them have honestly attempted to shed light on the puzzle of Book of Mormon geography. Major contributions have been made in defining Book of Mormon populations; in differentiating between Nephite and Jaredite cultures; in defining relative internal geographies; and in focusing on realistic overall locations.
In the secular world, extensive archaeological research has been focused on Mesoamerica, resulting in much valuable information, particularly as it relates to specific sites. However many areas still remain unstudied or unexplored. Great advances have also been made in deciphering the ancient written languages of Mesoamerica, particularly the Maya.
What has been accomplished?
John Sorenson has collected all the previous research on geographical studies and organized it into one comprehensive volume. This makes it much easier to become familiar with what has been done, to benefit from previous research and proposals, and to be able to compare ideas and theories. His volume also includes all the suggested maps for Book of Mormon geography allowing rapid and easy comparison.
Numerous criteria have been identified for the various geographical features and locations in the Book of Mormon. This obviously facilitates comparisons between possible sites and features.
It is now generally recognized that the lands of the Book of Mormon were located somewhere in Central America. This focuses the search and could result in a more concentrated and systematic approach.
Most researchers are aware that the populations we are dealing with were not exceptionally large, were probably mixed genetically, and may have been minority populations among larger groups. As a result, Nephite/Jaredite homelands can be better evaluated and more realistically studied. It is also generally recognized that not every Native American needs to be a remnant of Book of Mormon peoples, but that the Nephite/Jaredites were only the "principal" (see the Introduction to the Book of Mormon) ancestors of the Native Americans..
Generalized maps have now been developed which, although not identifying specific locations, illustrated a "generic" internal geography of Book of Mormon lands with the appropriate geographical relationships. Thus, study should focus on those areas which closely match the "generic" models.
A significant advance has been the recognition by Hobby and Smith* that there were substantial differences between the Nephite and Jaredite cultures, as well as their archaeological remains. This will permit a differentiation between the land northward, which was dominated by the Jaredites and their culture, and the Nephite land southward.
Many ancient sites have been archaeologically excavated and studied over the last one hundred years, and while not giving specific evidences of Nephite/Jaredite peoples (at least not yet), provide substantial resources for future study and comparison. These studies provide dating of the various sites and cultures which (if accurate) allows comparison with Book of Mormon peoples and places. In addition, rapid advances are being made in the decipherment of the ancient Mesoamerican records which should provide additional insights as time passes.
What are the current problems in Book of Mormon geographical studies?
The overriding problem in the study of Book of Mormon geography is the failure to identify the Nephite/Jaredite lands with certainty. The key to this problem is locating the "narrow neck of land" referred to in the book. If this feature could be identified, all else would naturally fall into place.
I suggest that those who are still trying to locate the Nephite lands in South America or the Great Lakes region of the USA are ignoring the clues and criteria found in the book, and are disregarding the voluminous research and evidence which points to a location in Central America. For those who are focusing their hopes for the narrow neck of land on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (which includes most present researchers), I would recommend re-evaluating the criteria, and looking "outside the box" for other possibilities.
Too much attention has been focused on the grand ruins of Mexico and Guatemala. Primary focus should be on the Book of Mormon itself, beginning with its obvious and inferred criteria. John Clark enlarges on this point: "It has been my experience that most members of the Church, when confronted with a Book of Mormon geography, worry about the wrong things. Almost invariably the first question that arises is whether the geography fits the archaeology of the proposed area. This should be our second question, the first being whether the geography fits the facts of the Book of Mormon-a question we all can answer without being versed in American archaeology. Only after a given geography reconciles all of the significant geographic details given in the Book of Mormon does the question of archaeological and historical detail merit attention. The Book of Mormon must be the final and most important arbiter in deciding the correctness of a given geography; otherwise we will be forever hostage to the shifting sands of expert opinion."*** And as Hobby and Smith correctly observe in the opening quote, confusing the Jaredite and Nephite cultures, and their associated archaeological ruins, can completely confound the picture, and make proper identification impossible. I suggest that this has been the case with much of what has been found in Mexico and Guatemala, which has retarded Book of Mormon geographical studies at least fifty years.
Finally, while expected Book of Mormon population sizes have been decreased substantially, and land masses have been reduced from continental proportions to a more realistic size, I suggest we need to look for a still smaller homeland for the Nephites, as well as a smaller core population. The Nephites regarded their land as an island (2 Nephi 10:20-21, Alma 22:32), a land surrounded intimately with water, which was something each of them would have observed and been familiar with. This criteria would not fit the land mass of the USA, or South America. Neither would it match Mexico nor Guatemala.
What needs to be done?
The narrow neck of land must be positively identified. This would pave the way for the positive identification of the remainder of the Book of Mormon lands.
A comprehensive effort needs to be made to differentiate between Jaredite and Nephite cultures, and more especially in identifying the differences between their archaeological remains.
Distasteful as it may be, more focus needs to be placed on the apostate phases of Jaredite and Nephite culture. The characteristics of apostate religious groups such as the followers of Nehor need to be studied in depth. And in particular, the culture of the secret societies needs to be identified. These were likely the dominant surviving cultures remaining after the Nephite extinction, and it is likely that their cultural traits can be found in post-conquest Native Americans.
It would also certainly be appropriate to exercise faith in the promise which the Lord has made, that we might receive the full record of the Brother of Jared which is waiting for a people of faith. "And in that day that they shall exercise faith in me, saith the Lord, even as the brother of Jared did, that they may become sanctified in me, then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding unto them all my revelations, saith Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of the heavens and of the earth." (Ether 4:7.) James Clark has challenged the LDS people to "get enough faith ... to ask the Lord to make that depository [the concealed Book of Mormon records] available to us. I mean it. I am serious about it. We will never do much with the textual problems and the linguistic problems of the Book of Mormon until that library of Jaredite and Nephite records--the originals, not the abridgement that we now have--is made available. The question is: Can we ever muster faith enough to ask for it?"**
In evaluating future proposals for Book of Mormon geography I believe that the correct model will comply with the test of Doctrine and Covenants 88:40 "For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth;...light cleaveth unto light..." Over time truth should build on truth until the complete picture becomes obvious. And of course we should not ignore Moroni's promise, which in my opinion is not limited to a testimony of the spiritual aspects of the Book of Mormon, but includes the truth of all things. "And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things." (Moroni 10:4-5.)
So let us pray that the truth will come forth, from whatever source. And although I believe the model I propose is correct, I know I have erred many times in the past, and may have erred again in this effort. But in publishing this material, my hope is that it will further the study of Book of Mormon geography, which I feel is a very worthwhile cause. And whether I identify something of value, or the discovery comes from another, I will rejoice in the day that Book of Mormon geography is as well known as is Biblical geography.
* Hobby, Michael and Smith, Troy. The Chronological Divisions of Jaredite History. Zarahemla Quarterly. Vol. 1, #4.
** Clark, James R. 1959. Book of Mormon Institute. Extension Publications. BYU.
*** A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies. Reviewed by John Clark. FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 1 (1989).