Book of Mormon geography

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The Book of Mormon is a religious history, describing the migrations of three groups of peoples to the Americas. It spans the time period of approximately 600 B.C. to 400 A.D. The first group of migrants was led by the Lord from the destruction of the Tower of Babel in Mesopotamia. The second and third groups were led by Lord to the Americas from Israel just prior to the Babylonian captivity. These latter groups kept the record, and included an account from the first group, whose remains they had found.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never given an official statement identifying a given place in the Americas with any place mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Church leaders have emphasized that the book's primary purpose is not to inform or describe the history of its peoples, but rather to invite the reader to come unto Christ. However, Church leaders have not discouraged members from studying the geography in the Book of Mormon or comparing it to present locations. The ninth Article of Faith states, "We believe ... that [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God." Someday the Lord will reveal the particulars of Book of Mormon geography to His saints. (See Church Statement on Book of Mormon Geography here).

Theories Regarding Book of Mormon Geography

There are different theories regarding the geographical location of lands, cities, rivers, and other features mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Because the book was completed in the fifth century A.D., it contains no specific reference to modern locations in the Americas.

One theory is that the Book of Mormon covers all of North and South America, or at least a vast portion of the Americas (the HGT-hemispheric geographical theory). This idea was held early on by Joseph Smith, a proof that he merely translated the Book of Mormon, rather than inventing it himself. He seemed not to have a concrete idea of the locations where Book of Mormon events took place. Example of the hemispheric geographical theory, or HGT

Another theory confines the majority of Book of Mormon events to Mesoamerica (limited geography theory, or LGT). A casual reader of the Book of Mormon tends to lean towards the HGT, because the plates were discovered at the "Hill Cumorah" in New York. However, upon close reading of the Book of Mormon, it appears likely that Mormon buried the majority of the plates in a southern location called the Hill Cumorah, and his son Moroni carried other plates (now the Book of Mormon) with him as he wandered for years, fleeing from the Lamanites.

A third theory confines Book of Mormon events to the northeastern United States. (See Book of Mormon Geography - New England Theory).

The internal geography of the book is remarkably consistent, and many Book of Mormon students have produced conjectural maps based on many geographical clues given in the book. See, for example, the video at bottom of page presented by Scripture Central. [1]

Supporting Ideas from Those Favoring North America as the Location of the Book of Mormon Events

  • The Book of Mormon talks about their location as being a continent that will support freedom and alludes to the founding of America as a free nation in the future.
"Many great events have transpired in this land of destiny. This was the place where Adam dwelt; this was the place where the Garden of Eden was; it was here that Adam met with a body of high priests at Adam-ondi-Ahman shortly before his death and gave them his final blessings, and the place to which he will go to meet the leaders of his people (D&C 107:53-57). This was the place of three former civilizations: that of Adam, that of the Jaredites, and that of the Nephites. This was also the place where our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith, inaugurating the last dispensation.
"The Lord has also decreed that this land should be “the place of the New Jerusalem, which should come down out of heaven and the holy sanctuary of the Lord” (Ether 13:3). Here is our nation’s destiny! To serve God’s eternal purpose and to prepare this land and people for America’s eventual destiny, He “established the constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom {He} raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood" (D&C 101:80). (This Nation Shall Endure, p. 13.)
  • The following quote sounds as if there was just one hill called Cumorah, and in North America:
"And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angle from heaven, declaring the fulfillment of the prophets—the book to be revealed" Doctrine and Covenants 128:29-20).
  • And the following:
Heber C. Kimball said it was revealed to him that the last great destruction of the wicked would be on the lakes near the Hill Cumorah” (Lundwall, 1940, p. 52).
“This book which contained these things, was hid in the earth by Moroni, in a hill called by him, Cumorah, which hill is now in the State of New York, near the village of Palmyra, in Ontario County. (Cheesman, Paul R., 1978, The World of the Book of Mormon, Horizon Publishers, Bountiful, Utah, p. 24).

Supporting Ideas from those Favoring a Mesoamerican Location for the Book of Mormon Cultures

The Limited Geography Theory assumes that the Book of Mormon peoples comprised fairly small groups who encountered and probably intermingled with peoples already in the Americas. By looking at the distances described in the Book of Mormon (always given by how long it took to get from one place to another) and described land features (which may have been changed by the great earthquake that preceded the visit by the Savior), this theory favors Mesoamerica (Central America) with the Isthmus of Teuhuantepec as the “narrow neck” of land.

Other supports for this theory include the following:

  • All travel distances that we can decipher from Book of Mormon events indicate a very limited scale, probably no more than a few hundred miles. [2] This is a similar land size to Israel, where the Bible account took place.
  • Descriptions in the Book of Mormon describe an hour-glass shaped land mass.
  • Mesoamerica had written language at the time of the Book of Mormon account.
  • Archaeologists have found cities and fortifications.
  • Rivers fit the descriptions in the Book of Mormon account.
  • The Book of Mormon never mentions a cold climate.
  • Agriculture and Commerce existed in the region at the time.
  • Earthquake zones and volcanism seem to fit the location.
  • Mormon seems to have hidden all the plates except the ones that became the Book of Mormon in a hill called "Cumorah." He gave the Book of Mormon plates to his son Moroni, who carried them for thirty years. Joseph Smith called the hill in New York where he found the plates "Cumorah."

Geographical References in the Book of Mormon

Geographical references in the Book of Mormon refer to a "land northward," a "land southward," a "narrow neck of land," a "west sea," an "east sea," rivers, valleys, lakes, forests, mountains, and other geographical features.

And they built a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land (Ether 10:20).
Therefore, Morianton put it into their hearts that they should flee to the land which was northward, which was covered with large bodies of water, and take possession of the land which was northward (Alma 50:29).
And it came to pass that they did not head them until they had come to the borders of the land Desolation; and there they did head them, by the narrow pass which led by the sea into the land northward, yea, by the sea, on the west and on the east (Alma 50:34).
And they came from there up into the south wilderness. Thus the land on the northward was called Desolation, and the land on the southward was called Bountiful, it being the wilderness which is filled with all manner of wild animals of every kind, a part of which had come from the land northward for food.
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 were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward.
And it came to pass that the Nephites had inhabited the land Bountiful, even from the east unto the west sea, and thus the Nephites in their wisdom, with their guards and their armies, had hemmed in the Lamanites on the south, that thereby they should have no more possession on the north, that they might not overrun the land northward (Alma 22:31-33).
And it came to pass that Hagoth, he being an exceedingly curious man, therefore he went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship, on the borders of the land Bountiful, by the land Desolation, and launched it forth into the west sea, by the narrow neck which led into the land northward.
And in the thirty and eighth year, this man built other ships. And the first ship did also return, and many more people did enter into it; and they also took much provisions, and set out again to the land northward (Alma 63:5, 7).
And it came to pass as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, they did send forth much by the way of shipping.
And thus they did enable the people in the land northward that they might build many cities, both of wood and of cement (Helaman 3:10, 11).
And they did preserve the land southward for a wilderness, to get game. And the whole face of the land northward was covered with inhabitants (Ether 10:21).

The references above manifest two things: 1) the Book of Mormon is consistent in its geographical references, and 2) it is very difficult to extrapolate Book of Mormon geography from the current lay of the land.

Landmass Changes of A.D. 33

The Book of Mormon peoples kept the Law of Moses looking forward to the coming of Christ. Prophets reinforced the idea that Christ would be born to a virgin in Bethlehem, that He would heal the sick and teach the gospel, and that He would be rejected and crucified to atone for the sins of mankind. They prophesied that the Lord would show the people miraculous signs to notify them of His birth and death. At the birth of Christ, the peoples in the Americas witnessed two days with no nighttime darkness in between. Upon Christ's crucifixion, there were three days of "thick darkness" after cataclysmic, destructive events, such as earthquakes and storms. The earthquakes were so severe, that cities were sunk into the sea or into the depths of the earth:

And it came to pass in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month, there arose a great storm, such an one as never had been known in all the land.
Volcanoes like Volcán de Agua in Antigua, Guatemala could account for Book of Mormon passages such as: "... the earth was carried up upon the city of Moronihah, that in the place of the city there became a great mountain" (3 Nephi 8:10). Photo: Derek Moss.
And there was also a great and terrible tempest; and there was terrible thunder, insomuch that it did shake the whole earth as if it was about to divide asunder.
And there were exceedingly sharp lightnings, such as never had been known in all the land.
And the city of Zarahemla did take fire.
And the city of Moroni did sink into the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof were drowned.
And the earth was carried up upon the city of Moronihah, that in the place of the city there became a great mountain.
And there was a great and terrible destruction in the land southward.
But behold, there was a more great and terrible destruction in the land northward; for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the whirlwinds, and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth;
And the highways were broken up, and the level roads were spoiled, and many smooth places became rough.
And many great and notable cities were sunk, and many were burned, and many were shaken till the buildings thereof had fallen to the earth, and the inhabitants thereof were slain, and the places were left desolate.
And there were some cities which remained; but the damage thereof was exceedingly great, and there were many in them who were slain.
And there were some who were carried away in the whirlwind; and whither they went no man knoweth, save they know that they were carried away.
And thus the face of the whole earth became deformed, because of the tempests, and the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the quaking of the earth.
And behold, the rocks were rent in twain; they were broken up upon the face of the whole earth, insomuch that they were found in broken fragments, and in seams and in cracks, upon all the face of the land (3 Nephi 8:5-18, emphasis added).

These destructions changed the face of the land, making it even more difficult for us to determine the original geography of the Book of Mormon from the present-day configuration of the land. Theories have been developed not only regarding the locations of Book of Mormon peoples, but of the shape of the land before the destruction.

Old World Geography

The major part of the Book of Mormon comes from the records kept by the descendants of Lehi, a descendant of Joseph who was led with his family and friends out of Jerusalem to the Americas around 600 B.C. Lehi's party traveled for nearly a decade in the Middle East before launching out to sea to the Americas. In contrast to American geographical references, the references to Middle Eastern locations can be associated with modern sites and geographical features. Thus, Latter-day Saint scholars have been able to map Lehi's old world journey with some degree of certainty. (See, for example, "Book of Mormon Evidence: Bountiful".)

Related articles: Book of Mormon Research, Book of Mormon evidences, Boaz

External Links

  • For a discussion of Old World Book of Mormon geography, click here.

Book of Mormon Internal Geography Map Video