Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book of Mormon Lands 1830 - 1985

From 1830 to 1842, the Saints, including Joseph Smith, engaged in relatively uninformed speculations about Book of Mormon lands. The native American remnants they encountered in their environment - mounds, skeletons, arrowheads, etc. fueled their imaginations.
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In 1842, Joseph Smith and some of his closest confidants (John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff) suddenly became much more precise and consistent in their cultural associations with The Book of Mormon text. John Bernhisel, one of the prophet's scribes in his Bible translation work, had sent a copy of John Lloyd Stephens' paradigm-shifting Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1841) from New York where it was generating enormous interest. Overnight, Mesoamerica and the glories of the advanced Maya civilization  began to inform Book of Mormon conversations in Nauvoo. It wasn't long before Palenque, Quirigua, Copan, etc. began appearing regularly in the Times and Seasons with suggested Book of Mormon connections.
Stephens & Catherrwood Lithograph of Stela D, Copan Honduras
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In 1879, Orson Pratt published his new edition of The Book of Mormon with the chapter and verse divisions the LDS Church still uses today (The Community of Christ uses a different schema in their edition). Pratt was an articulate advocate for a sweeping, hemispheric vision of Book of Mormon lands with the Isthmus of Panama as the narrow neck of land. Pratt's view dominated Mormon thinking until the middle twentieth century.
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In 1899, for example, George Reynolds published his monumental A Complete Concordance of The Book of Mormon. Representing the best minds in Utah in his day, Reynolds confidently asserted that the City of Zarahemla was in the modern nation of Colombia along the west bank of the large, north-flowing Magdalena (Sidon) River.
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There was enough enthusiasm among the Saints for the Magdalena/Sidon model that the ill-fated 1900-1902 Benjamin Cluff (then President of Brigham Young Academy - later BYU) expedition left from Provo on horseback bound for Colombia to find the city of Zarahemla. One of my great-great uncles, Heber Lorenzo Magleby, was Cluff's right hand man on the trip. The two of them later became business partners, running rubber plantations in Tabasco until the Mexican Revolution forced them to return to the States.  
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In Mexico, the Cluff expedition used the good offices of the first credentialed LDS archaeologist - Paul Henning. A German linguist and antiquarian who joined the Church in Mexico, Henning advocated a Mesoamerican setting for The Book of Mormon.
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In 1917, the first Reorganized LDS (now Community of Christ) archaeologist, Louis Hills, published his widely-influential Geography of Mexico and Central America from 2234 BC to 421 AD in Independence, Missouri. Community of Christ thinking has centered on the Usumacinta River as the Sidon (with special emphasis on Yaxchilan as a possible Zarahemla) ever since. Yaxchilan, it should be noted, is on the west bank of a large, north-flowing river.
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In 1946, M. Wells Jakeman, newly-minted Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, joined the BYU faculty. For decades Jakeman taught that the Usumacinta is the Sidon, correlating the city of Zarahemla with El Cayo, Chiapas and the city of Bountiful with Aguacatal, Campeche. Students who took Jakeman's archaeology of the Scriptures class were required to create their own Book of Mormon map.
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In the early 1950's, a new Grijalva/Sidon correlation came on the scene championed by Thomas Stuart Ferguson and John L. Sorenson. Sorenson and others spent most of the 1953 field season excavating around Huimanguillo, Tabasco - on the western banks of a large, north-flowing river. The field team failed to find significant pre-classic (Book of Mormon era) remains in Tabasco. (See the article "Water Fight on the River - Round Two" for a likely explanation). Near the end of the season, Ferguson went down to Mexico for a visit. Sorenson and Ferguson undertook a quick motorized reconnaissance of the Central Depression of Chiapas following the Grijalva upriver from Tuxtla Gutierrez. In the general vicinity of Chiapa de Corzo, they struck gold - pre-classic occupations everywhere they looked. Their thrill of discovery has colored the Book of Mormon/Mesoamerica correlation discussion ever since. It is no accident that the BYU-New World Archaeological Foundation Research and Study Center is in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas and much of the BYU archaeological effort over more than five decades has focused on sites within the Grijalva drainage basin and the Pacific coast of Chiapas/Guatemala (Soconusco).
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In 1974, David A. Palmer put out a call for papers and facilitated an information exchange with discussions and reviews sent around to all participants through the mail. By that time, LDS Book of Mormon scholars were largely convinced that the events described in the text took place in the limited geography of Mesoamerica. Correlations for the city of Nephi (Kaminaljuyu) and the narrow neck of land (Tehuantepec) were rapidly gaining traction, but there were 2 viable candidates for the River Sidon and Palmer was anxious to advance the cause toward consensus. Two scholars submitted papers: John L. Sorenson advocating a Santa Rosa/Zarahemla correlation along the Grijalva in 15 pages and V. Garth Norman proposing an Usumacinta/Sidon correlation without an obvious candidate for the City of Zarahemla in 150 pages. Both scholars agreed on a Ramah-Cumorah location in the Tuxtla Mountains of southern Veracruz. John Sorenson's ideas generally prevailed among the small group of discussants, although Thomas Stuart Ferguson gave a negative review and declared the problem insoluble while Robert F. Smith's review urged Sorenson to adopt more of Norman's historical contextual approach. When the forum ended in 1975, the official result was inconclusive - no consensus had been achieved. When Palmer and Bruce W. Warren undertook the Society for Early Historic Archaeology (SEHA) photographic expedition in 1977, they focused primarily on highland Guatemala, Chiapas, Veracruz, Oaxaca and the Valley of Mexico - sites generally aligned with Sorenson's Grijalva-centric model. When Palmer's In Search of Cumorah: New Evidences for the Book of Mormon from Ancient Mexico appeared in 1981, it was no surprise that John L. Sorenson's influence came through on almost every page.
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In 1983, one of our first projects after FARMS moved from Los Angeles to Provo was a multi-media slide + cassette  presentation entitled "Lands of The Book of Mormon". I wrote the script and John L. Sorenson edited it. Most of the photographs came from National Geographic photographer Floyd Holdman's outstanding collection. The soundtrack was professionally recorded and mixed at a private studio in Provo. We sold over a thousand copies all over the world. John Fugal, then on the BYU religion faculty, became a huge fan of the presentation and showed it dozens of times in firesides. In the script, I wrote that LDS scholarly consensus located Book of Mormon lands in Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and northern Central America), and that the river Sidon was probably the Grijalva River that flows through Chiapas and Tabasco, or it may have been the Usumacinta River that forms the border between Guatemala and Mexico before emptying into the Bay of of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico. This pretty much summed up the situation in 1983 - Mesoamerica definitely, 2 candidate rivers, Grijalva likely.
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In 1984, I worked with John L. Sorenson to produce the acclaimed maps for his groundbreaking An Ancient American Setting for The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book & FARMS, 1985). We contracted with the cartography lab at the University of Utah. The success of John's book (it is still in print) further established the Grijalva as the leading candidate for the River Sidon.

Book of Mormon Scholars

I have been a serious student of The Book of Mormon since my high school days. One of the major problems we have had over the years in Book of Mormon studies is what Hugh Nibley called "Zeal without Knowledge" The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 9, Approaching Zion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book & FARMS, 1989). Far too many critics have never actually read The Book of Mormon and far too many believers don't know enough about it to be source critical - i.e., to distinguish between high and low quality secondary and tertiary sources as they write about it. A camera and tour booklets purchased at Sacsahuaman, Chichen Itza, or Cahokia do not a Book of Mormon scholar make.    
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Some of the most important Book of Mormon scholars from antiquity include the familiar prophets Lehi, Nephi I, Jacob, Mosiah I, Benjamin, Mosiah II, Alma I, Alma II, Helaman I, Helaman II, Nephi II, Nephi III, Nephi IV, Mormon, Ether, and Moroni. Their words are fundamental primary sources. Joseph Smith, Jr., is in a class by himself. He translated The Book of Mormon through the gift and power of God - an awesome miracle scarcely equaled in the whole of human history. But, as Jack Welch has famously observed, the prophet Joseph Smith seems never to have read The Book of Mormon after its publication in 1830 when he was 24 years old. (Comments by Terryl L. Givens and John W. Welch at "Mormonism in Cultural Contexts: A Symposium in Honor of Richard L. Bushman on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday," June 18, 2011, Springville Museum of Art, Springville, Utah.) Some of the most important Book of Mormon scholars from The Dispensation of the Fullness of Times include Hugh W. Nibley, John W. (Jack) Welch, John L. Sorenson, and V. Garth Norman. In my experience, these men have exercised the scholarly discipline necessary to be source-critical, and I recommend their insights.
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Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844) translated the text of the current Book of Mormon (there is more to come when we truly appreciate what we already have) with divine help from ancient metal plates into English. He was familiar with Book of Mormon peoples and life ways through visions he had received that helped prepare him for his prophetic calling. Once he got his hands on John Lloyd Stephens' classic 2 volume work Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1841), the sumptuous Frederick Catherwood illustrations reminded Smith of the cultures he had seen in vision. The prophet and his inner circle (John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff) began publishing articles in the official LDS periodical of their day (Times and Seasons, Nauvoo, Illinoisabout the relationships they saw between Book of Mormon civilizations and ancient Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and northern Central America).
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Hugh W. Nibley (1910 - 2005) was educated at UCLA and UC Berkeley where he received his Ph.D. in 1938. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book & FARMS, 1986 - 2010) run to 19 volumes. The last several volumes appeared posthumously. This corpus, one of the most significant in all of Mormon letters, includes 4 volumes dedicated to The Book of Mormon:

Nibley taught us to read The Book of Mormon as an ancient book.
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John W. Welch (1946 -  ) was educated at BYU, Oxford, and Duke where he received his J.D. in 1975. Welch's classic BYU Studies article "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon" (Volume 10:1, Autumn 1969) continues to be one of the most important Book of Mormon studies pieces ever published. Jack created the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) in 1979 (now the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU). He was one of the editors of the 4 volume Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992). Jack has been Editor-in-Chief of BYU Studies since 1991. He was General Editor of the 19-volume The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book & FARMS, 1986 - 2010). Author or editor of more than 300 scholarly works, a recent tour de force is his very important The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo: BYU Press & The Maxwell Institute, 2008).

Welch taught us to read The Book of Mormon as ancient Hebrew literature, and to pay attention to the significance of every word in the text.
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John L. Sorenson (1924 -  )  was educated at USU, BYU and UCLA where he received his Ph.D. in 1962. Soon after John L. Sorenson met John W. Welch (at Delbert Palmer's home in Provo in 1979), FARMS achieved critical mass and the modern era of Book of Mormon studies began. Sorenson's seminal An Ancient American Setting for The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985) established Mesoamerica as The Book of Mormon homeland. Author of more than 200 scholarly articles and books, Sorenson is one of only a handful of LDS scholars honored with a festschrift. He is a leading authority on transoceanic cultural diffusion. His anxiously awaited magnum opus, Mormon's Codex, details hundreds of points of congruence between Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican civilizations.

Sorenson taught us to read the Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican record.
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V. Garth Norman (1934 -  ) was educated at BYU. He may be the only Book of Mormon scholar with advanced degrees in both Ancient Scripture (MA, BYU, 1975) and Archaeology-Anthropology (MS, BYU, 1980). He is a leading authority on Izapa, birthplace of the Maya calendar and a key transitional site linking Olmec with later Maya civilization. Papers of the New World Archaeological Foundation, Number Thirty, Izapa Sculpture, Part 1: Album & Part 2: Text (Provo: BYU NWAF, 1973, 1976) and The Parowan Gap: Naure's Perfect Observatory (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2007) are significant. Norman has presented at The Palenque Roundtable, Dumbarton Oaks, The International Congress of Americanists and many Society for American Archaeology conferences.

Norman has produced the best Book of Mormon Lands map yet published.