Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Book of Mormon Lands 1986 - 2011

John L. Sorenson's landmark publication An Ancient American Setting for The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book & FARMS, 1985) firmly established Mesoamerica as the viable location for Book of Mormon lands. Critics began almost immediately, though, to question some details of his geographical model correlating the River Sidon with the Grijalva flowing through the Central Depression of Chiapas. In particular, many people took issue with Sorenson's idea that the Nephites skewed their cardinal directions west from true north. Many also had trouble visualizing the Gulf of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico as the Book of Mormon's sea east. Sorenson's later works The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book (Provo: FARMS, 1991) and the popular Mormon's Map (Provo: FARMS, 2000) further explained the textual basis for his model, but none of these books quelled the criticism. For example, Sorenson conscientiously avoids most of the Maya area. Can you really site the Book of Mormon land southward in southern Mesoamerica without engaging the Maya?
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In late 1997, The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) became part of BYU. What had been a thriving, dynamic, independent movement gradually began to lose focus. Eventually the byzantine politics on campus transformed the organization into an alphabet soup of institutes, centers and initiatives supporting one or another well-connected scholar's pet projects. As many good people became dispirited and left, the Book of Mormon studies balloon gradually deflated. The FARMS culture of rapid-fire innovation and collaboration was replaced with the risk-averse conservatism of tenured faculty members competing for funds. Useful vestiges of the old organization such as the FARMS Review recently renamed Mormon Studies Review, edited by Daniel C. Peterson, remained for a season, but the Mesoamerican correlation consensus that had been building for decades languished in the vacuum created by FARMS' demise. Pseudo-scholars began attracting followings by dusting off old, discredited Book of Mormon geography theories as wildly disparate as the Andean region of South America and the Great Lakes region of North America. Adding to the cacophony, earnest people again began advocating micro-geographies centered in Nicaragua, Baja California, etc.
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"In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?" Joseph Smith - History 1:10.
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In September, 2006, V. Garth Norman and I were at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. In the mid 1960's, he had done a comprehensive contextual analysis of the Book of Mormon that included an important geographical correlation. The unpublished manuscript from his study had lain fallow in his filing cabinet for decades. At the time, I was a skeptical partisan of John L. Sorenson's Santa Rosa/Zarahemla Grijalva/Sidon correlation. Partisan because I had not seen any Book of Mormon geography correlation that better explained the text; skeptical because Sorenson's model was an uncomfortable fit that left many questions unanswered. Sorenson's prodigious scholarship notwithstanding, consensus around his Book of Mormon lands model had simply never materialized. When Garth & I were standing in front of a 3D model of Mesoamerica with an exaggerated vertical scale, he quietly began explaining his view of the Book of Mormon in space and time. The key to the matter, he insisted, was the narrow strip of wilderness described by Mormon in Alma 22:27 - the dividing line running from the sea east to the sea west that separated Nephite and Lamanite polities in the first century BC. As Norman pointed to the Sierra de las Minas that rises like a knife blade through eastern Guatemala, I had one of those aha moments that sometimes becomes the small hinge upon which an axial event in history turns. If this really is the narrow strip of wilderness, then the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo and Belize is The Book of Mormon's sea east and the Usumacinta is almost certainly the river Sidon.
3D Topographical Model of Mesoamerica
National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Photograph by Kirk Magleby, September, 2006
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In November, 2006, I went to the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU to examine this distinctive geological feature from another perspective.
3D World Globe, Harold B. Lee Library, BYU
Photograph by Kirk Magleby, November, 2006
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Convinced that Garth was on to something, my wife and I helped him secure funding and his groundbreaking Mesoamerica & Book of Mormon Lands map was published in time for Christmas, 2006. Since then, several thousand copies have been distributed around the world. I have worked with this Mormon/Norman map for about 5 years now and I am satisfied that while it still has some rough edges, it is the best spatial correlation with the Book of Mormon text currently available.
Mesoamerica & Book of Mormon Lands map
V. Garth Norman, December, 2006
You can purchase a copy of Garth's ground breaking map here.