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Book of Mormon Geography

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 19, 2008

Wrote George Q. Cannon in 1890:

There is a tendency, strongly manifested at the present time among some of the brethren, to study the geography of the Book of Mormon. We have heard of numerous lectures, illustrated by suggestive maps, being delivered on this subject during the present winter, generally under the auspices of the Improvement Societies and Sunday Schools. We are greatly pleased to notice the increasing interest taken by the Saints in this holy book. It contains the fullness of the gospel of Christ, and those who prayerfully study its sacred pages can be made wise unto salvation. It also unravels many mysteries connected with the history of the ancient world, more particularly of this western continent, mysteries which no other book explains.

But valuable as is the Book of Mormon both in doctrine and history, yet it is possible to put this sacred volume to uses for which it was never intended, uses which are detrimental rather than advantageous to the cause of truth, and consequently to the work of the Lord.

We have been led to these thoughts from the fact that the brethren who lecture on the lands of the Nephites or the geography of the Book of Mormon are not united in their conclusions. No two of them, so far as we have learned, are agreed on all points, and in many cases the variations amount to tens of thousands of miles. These differences of views lead to discussion, contention and perplexity; and we believe more confusion is caused by these divergences than good is done by the truths elicited.

How is it that there is such a variety of ideas on this subject? Simply because the Book of Mormon is not a geographical primer. It was not written to teach geographical truths. What is told us of the situation of the various lands or cities of the ancient jaredites, Nephites and Lamanites is usually simply an incidental remark connected with the doctrinal or historical portions of the work; and almost invariably only extends to a statement of the relative position of some land or city to contiguous or surrounding places, and nowhere gives us the exact situation or boundaries so that it can be definitely located without fear of error.

It must be remembered that geography as a science, like chronology and other branches of education, was not understood nor taught after the manner or by the methods of the moderns. It could not be amongst those peoples who were not acquainted with the size and form of the earth, as was the case with most of the nations of antiquity, though not with the Nephites. Their seers and prophets appear to have received divine light on this subject.

The First Presidency have often been asked to prepare some suggestive map illustrative of Nephite geography, but have never consented to do so. Nor are we acquainted with any of the Twelve apostles who would undertake such a task. The reason is, that without further information they are not prepared even to suggest. The word of the Lord or the translation of other ancient records is required to clear up many points now so obscure that, as we have said, no two original investigators agree with regard to them. when, as is the case, one student places a certain city at the Isthmus of Panama, a second in Venezuela, and a third in Guiana or northern Brazil, it is obvious that suggestive maps prepared by these brethren would confuse instead of enlighten; and they cannot be thus far apart in this one important point without relative positions being also widely separate.

For these reasons we have strong objections to the introduction of maps and their circulation among our people which profess to give the location of the Nephite cities and settlements. As we have said, they have a tendency to mislead, instead of enlighten, and they give rise to discussions which will lead to division of sentiment and be very unprofitable. We see no necessity for maps of this character, because, at least, much would be left to the imagination of those who prepare them; and we hope that there will be no attempt made to introduce them or give them general circulation. Of course, there can be no harm result from the study of the geography of this continent at the time it was settled by the Nephites, drawing all the information possibly from the record which has been translated for our benefit. But beyond this we do not think it necessary, at the present time, to go, because it is plain to be seen, we think, that evils may result therefrom.

[“The Book of Mormon Geography,” Juvenile Instructor, 25:1 (1 January 1890), 18-19.]



24 Comments »

  1. I love this. Thank you.

    Comment by Julie M. Smith — October 19, 2008 @ 11:34 am

  2. And that was 1890.

    Comment by Earl — October 19, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

  3. I like George Q. Cannon. He’s one of my favorite historical figures from that era. I was just looking at a brief bio of him, and it looks like he started The Juvenile Instructor. (I’m sure everyone knew that but me!)

    And can I just say, I also agree with this post?

    Without any specific reason, I’ve always disliked those maps drawn of the Book of Mormon lands, so it’s nice that someone thought it through and came to the conclusion that not all uses of a book of scripture will forward the cause of truth.

    Comment by Researcher — October 19, 2008 @ 12:25 pm

  4. I share your reactions, both to the reasonableness of his cautious approach, and to the early date at which he wrote it. A lot of speakers, even general authorities, weren’t as cautious as GQC was, taking public and really unjustifiable stands on where this-or-that Book of Mormon event occurred, and a lot of writers still won’t let us forget that. But I was pleased to find this, showing that our current attitude isn’t just a modern concession to critics, but instead is a longstanding one held by at least one very responsible authority.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 19, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

  5. This really is awesome. It appears that I agree with GQC on Book of Mormon Geography, but not on monogamy (too bad his cation extended that far! grin).

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 19, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

  6. George Q: Amen, amen, amen. I knew you were always one of my favorite GAs.

    Comment by Ben — October 19, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  7. Sensible foresight.

    Comment by Jami — October 19, 2008 @ 8:52 pm

  8. Very interesting, indeed. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Hunter — October 19, 2008 @ 9:44 pm

  9. Hmmm, interesting. I think sometimes people forget that the land changed at Christ’s death and is still changing. And what does it matter, really? The gospel is still the one way to eternal life. :)

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — October 20, 2008 @ 3:35 am

  10. In his very last sentence he adds, “at the present time.” That was published almost 120 years ago.

    Comment by Tom — October 20, 2008 @ 6:24 am

  11. Truely the voice of reason that we expect in our church leaders; yesterday and today.

    Comment by BruceC — October 20, 2008 @ 8:46 am

  12. In my adult life (from my mission onward) I have taken a more cautious approach to BofM geography. We simply do not have enough information from the BofM concerning geography. I feel the BofM has a mission and that is to testify of Jesus Christ. It is not to be a text book for ancient American history or geography.

    I also echo Ardis appraisal that this is interesting that this statement by GQC came more than a century ago and that “recent” interpretations were not made as concessions to critics.

    Comment by Steve C. — October 20, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  13. Fantastic find, Ardis. I simply love this.

    Comment by Ray — October 20, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  14. This part makes sense, too:

    Of course, there can be no harm result from the study of the geography of this continent at the time it was settled by the Nephites, drawing all the information possibly from the record which has been translated for our benefit.

    Study all you want, look at the evidence, find out what happened to the geography. Just don’t use your ability or inability to find the appropriate landmarks to affect the testimony that shouldn’t ever come from anything other than ONE source.

    Comment by iguacufalls — October 20, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  15. Wise and prudent counsel, I think. I’m reminded of running across somewhere here on the internet a BYU professor that claims to have found as much evidence for setting the BoM events on the Malay peninsula as for Central or South America. Ultimately, the Book of Mormon is an artifact of faith, else of what use is it?

    Comment by kevinf — October 20, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

  16. To add to kevinf’s comment, I know I’ve mentioned before somewhere that I knew some African members of the church who could not be convinced that the Book of Mormon did not take place in Africa.

    On the other hand, I’m sure there are those who feel that their efforts could mimic those of Heinrich Schliemann who believed that Troy could be located by a close reading of Homer. Not a popular position, but he proved himself right.

    Comment by Researcher — October 20, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

  17. I know I’ve mentioned before somewhere that I knew some African members of the church who could not be convinced that the Book of Mormon did not take place in Africa.

    I am reminded of Embaye Melekin’s book Manifestations Mysteries Revealed in which he claims that the Book of Mormon tells the history of the African people.

    Comment by Justin — October 21, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

  18. Ancient America was a big fad in the church when I was growing up. I think Milton R. Hunter was one of the enthusiast. It is really odd and funny (amusing) to learn that some church leaders had the foresight to warn against such silliness, so long ago. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — October 21, 2008 @ 4:36 pm

  19. Thanks for finding this, Ardis.

    Comment by BHodges — October 21, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

  20. Wow Justin. That’s amazing. I just read a review of the book from FARMS. I find it very interesting that a casual investigator of the church would write a book like that. Fascinating.

    Comment by Researcher — October 21, 2008 @ 5:15 pm

  21. This is great. It certainly has other implications, as well. There are multiple examples of speculation becoming accepted almost as doctrine, or when people say more that we actually know. We have to be careful because, after all, some of us are gullible. Or as Elder Delbert Stapley would say, “the Saints are suckers”.

    Comment by Clean Cut — December 16, 2008 @ 11:33 am

  22. Thanks for posting the entire excerpt of this quote by President Cannon. Needless to say, many have been taught that Book of Mormon geography as if it were a well-attested fact. However, the Brethren have consistently stated it is not. In that context, I find Nibley’s comments about the Narrow Neck of Land intriguing. But even then, without the benefit of one’s own direct revelation, who knows where these events took place?

    Comment by Greg — January 26, 2009 @ 9:21 am

  23. I suppose the question is should we even engage in a study of Book of Mormon geography? I note that GQC finishes his article with the answer.
    “Of course, there can be no harm result from the study of the geography of this continent at the time it was settled by the Nephites, drawing all the information possibly from the record which has been translated for our benefit.”
    I would imagine that the main objection to such studies would be if they result in contention among the members. This has always been condemned, even contention upon the basic principles of the gospel.
    Apparently the church thinks it is profitable to engage in such an endeavor. They have supported and financed such research through entities such as NWAF and FARMS since the 1950s.
    Is such a quest really worthwhile? Imagine what a knowledge of the Bible would be like without information on Biblical geography. The same would be the case with the Book of Mormon. Great will be the day when we definitely know the truth about it.
    Mormon must have had a desire that we know about his lands as he wasted a lot of valuable space on the plates describing them. Could this space have been better used for more spiritual things?
    Even Joseph himself was known to have speculated on the location of of Zarahemla. He thought it was in Guatemala. Unfortunately, most do not know the boundaries of the Kingdom of Guatemala at that time.
    One additional point:
    MG states, “I think sometimes people forget that the land changed at Christ’s death and is still changing. And what does it matter, really?”
    Many people seem to have this notion. Although the land was changed at the crucifixion, Mormon is the one who gives us almost all the geographical information 350 years after the fact. He is describing the land after the changes had occurred. And yes, it does matter–a lot.

    Comment by James Warr — March 3, 2009 @ 10:16 am

  24. The point is, James, that no New World spot mentioned in the Book of Mormon can be definitively tied to any corresponding spot on the globe today. It’s all speculation, whether it comes from FARMS or from your wacky neighbor, and should be presented as such.

    In this way a study of Book of Mormon geography differs very much from a study of Biblical geography.

    I would agree that a study of Book of Mormon geography based on the relative positions of places mentioned could potentially have value if it led to new understanding of Nephite/Lamanite behavior and history. But the moment anyone insists that Place X mentioned in the Book of Mormon corresponds to some known spot on our current map — at that point, they have crossed the boundary from scholarship to fantasy, and quite likely to fanaticism.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 3, 2009 @ 10:30 am

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