There is a tendency, strongly manifested . . . among some of the brethren, to study the geography of the Book of Mormon. . . . We are greatly pleased to notice the . . . interest taken by the Saints in this holy book. . . . 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. . . . The First Presidency has 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.1
In 1993, the First Presidency wrote:
The Church emphasizes the doctrinal and historical value of the Book of Mormon, not its geography. While some Latter-day Saints have looked for possible locations and explanations because the New York Hill Cumorah does not readily fit the Book of Mormon description of Cumorah, there are no conclusive connections between the Book of Mormon text and any specific site.2
A few weeks ago, a member in our congregation told me about a DVD he recently viewed and was excited to share it with me (see DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography). When he first told me about the DVD, the first thought I had in my mind was an article by Dr. Nibley entitled Ancient Temples: What Do They Signify? in the September 1972 Ensign. Here are a few excerpts that may (or may not) pertain to the ongoing question about the locale of the Book of Mormon:
What most impressed me last summer on my first and only expedition to Central America was the complete lack of definite information about anything. Never was so little known about so much. We knew ahead of time that of the knowledge of the ancient cultures there wasn’t much to be expected, but we were quite unprepared for the poverty of information that confronted us on the guided tours of ruins, museums, and lecture halls. It was not that our gracious guides knew less than they should. It is just a fact of life that no one knows much at all about these oft-photographed and much-talked-about ruins.
In the almost complete absence of written records, one must be permitted to guess, because there is nothing else to do; and when guessing is the only method of determination, one man’s skill is almost as good as another’s. An informed guess is a contradiction of terms, so our initial shock of nondiscovery was tempered by a warm glow of complacency on finding that the rankest amateur in our party was able to pontificate on the identity and nature of most objects as well as anybody else.
One would suppose it to be a relatively easy thing to decide whether a given structure had served as a hospital, a monastery, a palace, a storeroom, a barracks, a temple, a tomb, or an office. But it is not easy at all, with everything stripped completely bare and all the interiors looking just alike. Usually, we do not even know who the builders were or what their names were or where they came from.
Stock phrases, such as, “We know as little about the history of the Mixtecs as we do about the Zapotecs,” may confirm a scientist’s integrity, but they hardly establish him as an authority. Admission of ignorance, though a constant refrain in guidebooks and articles, is really no substitute for knowledge. This writer is as ill-equipped as any ten-year-old to write about the people of ancient America, because he has never seen their records—but then who has?
The vast archives of the Old World civilizations that bring their identities and their histories to life simply do not exist for the New World, and so all we can do as we sit drinking lemonade in the shade is to gaze and emote and speculate and rest our weary feet.
There are two things, however, about ancient American ruins upon which everyone seems to agree: (1) the reliefs that adorn the walls of some of these structures with ritual games, sacrifices, processions, audiences, and well-known religious symbols leave little doubt that they were designed to be the scenes of religious activities; (2) some of these religious structures were laid out to harmonize with the structure and motion of the cosmos itself, as witness the perfectly straight axial ways that point directly to the place of the rising and setting sun at solstices and equinoxes or the total of 364 steps and 52 slabs to a side that adorn the great pyramid of Chichén Itzá.
It is an eloquent commentary on the bankruptcy of the modern mind, as Giorio de Santillana points out, that we can find so little purpose or meaning in the magnificent and peculiar structures erected by the ancients with such immense skill and obvious zeal and dedication. These great edifices are found throughout the entire world and seem to represent a common tradition; and if they do, then we have surely lost our way.
Counterparts to the great ritual complexes of Central America once dotted the entire eastern United States, the most notable being the Hopewell culture centering in Ohio and spreading out for hundreds of miles along the entire length of the Mississippi River. These are now believed to be definitely related to corresponding centers in Mesoamerica.3
Dr. Nibley went on to explain that all over the Old World and New, these ancient structures or temples functioned as “powerhouses” that attest to “the fading or fictive nature of the vaunted powers from on high.” In fact, it is likely these magnificent structures were just counterfeits built near the end of each respective civilization.
One thing that leads us to suspect that most of the great powerhouses whose traces still remain were never anything more than pompous imitations or replicas is their sheer magnificence. The archaeologist finds virtually nothing of the remains of the primitive Christian church until the fourth century, because the true church was not interested in buildings and deliberately avoided the acquisition of lands and edifices that might bind it and its interests to this world.
The Book of Mormon is a history of a related primitive church, and one may well ask what kind of remains the Nephites would leave us from their more virtuous days. A closer approximation to the Book of Mormon picture of Nephite culture is seen in the earth and palisade structures of the Hopewell and Adena culture areas than in the later stately piles of stone in Mesoamerica.
C. Northcote Parkinson has demonstrated with withering insight how throughout history really ornate, tasteless, and pompous building programs have tended to come as the aftermath of civilization. After the vital powers are spent, then is the time for the super-buildings, the piling of stone upon stone for monuments of staggering mass and proportion. It was after the disciples of the early church decided to give up waiting for the Messiah and to go out for satisfaction here and now that the Christians of the fourth century took to staging festivals and erecting monuments in the grand manner, covering the whole Near East with structures of theatrical magnificence and questionable taste.
How unlike the building program of the Church today which can barely erect enough of our very functional, almost plain chapels to keep abreast of the growing needs of the Latter-day Saints.
Though such piles as the great pyramid-temple of Chichén Itzá yield to few buildings in the world in beauty of proportion and grandeur of conception, there is something disturbing about most of these overpowering ruins. Writers describing them through the years have ever confessed to feelings of sadness and oppression as they contemplate the moldy magnificence—the futility of it all: “They have all gone away from the house on the hill,” and today we don’t even know who they were.
Amid the ruins of the New World, as in Rome, we feel something of both the greatness and the misery, the genuine aspiration and the dull oppression, the idealism and the arrogance imposed by the heavy hand of priestcraft and kingcraft, and we wonder how the ruins of our own super buildings will look someday.
The great monuments do not represent what the Nephites stood for; rather, they stand for what their descendants, “mixed with the blood of their brethren,” descended to. But seen in the newer and wider perspective of comparative religious studies, they suggest to us not only the vanity of mankind and the futility of man’s unaided efforts, but also something nobler; the constant search of men to recapture a time when the powers of heaven were truly at the disposal of a righteous people.
Dr. Nibley’s article was in the back of my mind yesterday as I watched Rod Meldrum’s presentation about DNA and Book of Mormon geography. While I do not agree with a number of Mr. Meldrum’s assertions, I love the way he approached the subject as simply a student of the Book of Mormon and as a sincere seeker of truth.
After watching the DVD, I then went on the Internet and searched for additional information. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find the “charged” public exchange A Faulty Apologetic for the Book of Mormon on the FAIR blog that occurred earlier this year.
But after reading through the whole exchange and other related material, I began to ponder about the role of scholarship in informing faith. For example, where does scholarship end and where does faith and the prompting of the Spirit begin in the divine process we call revelation?
What are your thoughts and experiences concerning this issue?
- Cannon, George Q. “Editorial Thoughts: The Book of Mormon Geography”. The Juvenile Instructor. 1 January 1890: 25:18–19.↩
- Correspondence from Michael Watson, Office of the First Presidency, 23 April 1993 as cited in Hamblin, William J. “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon”. Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. 1993: 2:161-197.↩
- Nibley, Hugh W. “Ancient Temples: What Do They Signify?“. September 1972. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1 December 2008.↩