The Elusive Book of Mormon Lands

Apr 16, 14 The Elusive Book of Mormon Lands

I’ve grown up with a love of the Book of Mormon. The culture of Book of Mormon love has been strong as long as I’ve been alive, since Benson gave his big Book of Mormon talk before I was born. I’ve read the Book of Mormon dozens of times. We owned all of the Living Scriptures Book of Mormon tapes and had worn out most of them. I probably still get confused about parts of the Book of Mormon where the cartoons added extra details.

What I love most about the Book of Mormon is the material speculating on the location of Book of Mormon lands. The most convincing to me, and the area that has received a majority of the interest, is Mesoamerica. This is most often connected with the Maya though sometimes includes other indigenous peoples, most prominently the Olmec in connection with the Jaredites. I’ve read tons of books and articles from authors like Sorenson, Lund, Gardner, Allen, and others. Having a historical setting for the Book of Mormon can add even more to reading it. Bible readers have long had this luxury with books all about ancient Israel: what the lands looked like, what they ate, how they lived, and how they worshipped. Once one has decided on the location and time of the Book of Mormon, many of these benefits are available to us.

Because of my love of the Book of Mormon and the Maya, I’ve always wanted to visit the awesome Maya ruins in Central America. My wife and I recently went on a cruise to the Yucatan peninsula. I was very excited to finally visit one of the ruins. We chose to visit Uxmal, a site with temples and monuments primarily built after the Book of Mormon time period, but I wasn’t too worried about that. I would finally have the opportunity to see the Book of Mormon lands! See what the temples of the Maya were like up close!

We arrived in Galveston, Texas ready to get on our cruise ship. However, there was heavy fog that day, and our ship was delayed. The port of Progreso was cancelled, which was where we would have left from to travel by bus to Uxmal. Our other port was to the island of Cozumel, which has Maya ruins but they are largely unimpressive, and our stay in Cozumel was too short to ferry to the mainland where more impressive ruins like Tulum are located. I couldn’t believe our bad luck. My dreams of visiting an ancient Maya city were ruined. We sat in a Jimmy John’s across the street from the port feeling miserable about the delay. I called my dad and told him how depressed I was about missing out on Uxmal. We ended up staying at a rundown hotel that night and ordering cheap delivery pizza. I didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything.

This felt like an allegory for my discovery of the “true” location of the Book of Mormon lands. You see, I no longer believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The recent essay released on LDS.org about DNA issues with the Book of Mormon is similar to much of Book of Mormon apologetics: explaining how the peoples of the Book of Mormon could have lived in ancient America, but having little in the way of proof of them actually living there. I don’t think this necessarily diminished its value as scripture. Mormon Matters had an excellent podcast recently talking about how to treat scripture of questionable historicity, though it used the Book of Abraham as its starting point: http://mormonmatters.org/2014/02/21/213-214-the-book-of-abraham-as-scripture/.

Even with my knowledge of how scripture can be useful and beautiful even when it isn’t historical, the fact remained that the plan to visit Uxmal felt a little bittersweet. I still love learning about the Maya, but I no longer believe that they necessarily had anything to do with the Book of Mormon. It felt like something was missing. The joy in the opportunity to finally visit, feel, smell, and see the lands where the Book of Mormon took place. This seemed like a little bit of a letdown compared to the days when I used to dream of getting the “Ultimate Book of Mormon tour” package where all of the proposed Book of Mormon cities and lands would be visited, and we would see where the Nephites and Lamanites lived.

I once thought I had discovered where the great stories took place, and could learn about them and visit them. Similarly, I thought I was finally going to have the chance to visit a real Maya city. However, neither actually occurred. It seems I’ll never be able to visit the land of the Book of Mormon. I still hope to someday visit some Maya ruins. Maybe we’ll even be able to do a little longer cruise or tour and see several sites. I don’t know if I’ll believe in the Mesoamerican model of Book of Mormon lands by that time, but maybe I’ll be able to have a little more positive attitude about it. People that believe in the “two Cumorah” theory still seem to enjoy visiting Cumorah in New York. Maybe I can still feel a deeper connection to the Book of Mormon by visiting ancient Maya cities.

 

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Mr. Thomas is an Engineering graduate student. He lives with his wife and son in Colorado where he is a ward organist.

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12 Comments

  1. LDSDPer /

    hmmm, this is interesting.

    Who knows where those people lived, right?

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  2. Brent /

    I have no comments about this post, but I’d like to suggest to its readers four books of interest: Studies of the Book of Mormon, by B.H. Roberts; Losing a Lost Tribe,by Simon G. Southerton;and Quest for the Gold Plates,Thomas Ferguson’s Archaeological Search for the Book of Mormon,by Stan Larson;and, if you’re interested in additional intriguing reading, View of the Hebrews,by Ethan Smith.

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  3. I really relate to the author here. I think this post epitomizes one of the things about Mormonism that I truly dislike–its propensity to commandeer everything it touches into its own narrative.

    When I was a missionary in Peru, I never took any of the Incan cultural legends that I heard from Peruvians seriously because in the back of my mind, I was thinking “Yeah, these stories exist, but the truth is that all these people were just Nephites/Lamanites.” Basically, I never really let the Incas exist on their own terms in my mind; they were always part of the narrative of Mormonism.

    I think this pattern of defining everything relative to Mormonism is what made the author feel disappointed about visiting the Mayas after he lost his belief that the BoM was historical. Which kind of sucks when you think about it, because the Maya were a FREAKING INCREDIBLE civilization, every bit as worth of awe and interest as the civilizations described in the BoM. But that’s the downside of a fundamentalist worldview. Defining everything relative to that belief makes for a nice mental shortcut for interpreting the world around you, but you never really get to see and experience things as they really are, on their own terms.

    Anyway, thanks, OP. Good post!

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    • L Thomas /

      Thanks for bringing up that topic, Jake.

      I chose not to address the topic of the Church or Book of Mormon taking over the history of an ancient people. That seems like a topic best left for its own blog, or even a series of them or a book. So I decided to stick with my own experience.

      I am definitely still interested in the Maya themselves regardless of any connection to the Book of Mormon. They are a fascinating people with a fascinating history. Their culture, architecture, astronomy, etc are all awesome. And of course many other groups of Native Americans have been tied to the Book of Mormon, like the Incas you brought up. The Maya were just my favorite.

      However even with a knowledge that the Maya are great on their own terms, when it comes to my own connection with the Book of Mormon, it still feels like I lost something. Not because the Maya have lost their connection to the Book of Mormon (in my mind), but because the Book of Mormon has lost the Maya.

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  4. Thanks Brent – They are now on my reading list.

    Mr. Thomas – I feel your distress. They are the most amazing hero’s, and to discover they might not have been is so heart wrenching. I am glad you shared your pain with us.

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  5. Jonathan Cannon
    Jonathan Cannon /

    I enjoyed your post. I think we need to listen to each other’s stories and accept that their experiences and conclusions are arrived at through honest effort and searching.

    I happen to think we do ourselves a disservice in our ability to get the most from the Book of Mormon when we reject historicity, and that most of the reasons for rejecting historicity result from modern, imposed interpretations of evidence and not from the evidence (or lack thereof) itself. DNA as you mentioned is a prime example. It doesn’t provide direct evidence for Book of Mormon historicity, but if we understood both the Book of Mormon and the nature of DNA evidence, it wouldn’t even be part of the discussion. Unfortunately, few people show evidence of understanding both as regards their interplay. If we are to go by mtDNA and Y-chromosome DNA (the primary evidence regarding Native American origins), a thorough profile of Icelanders in the late 20th century only identified 10% of their ancestors who lived only 200 years before. 90% of the ancestors known from genealogical records couldn’t be found in the DNA. But instead of doing the hard work to understand DNA analysis, the additional hard work of attempting to formulate testable genetic hypotheses from the Book of Mormon text, and looking at what has actually been done, we accept professional conclusions founded on incomplete data and sloppy readings of the Book of Mormon (readings which impose 19th and 20th century assumptions about who the Lamanites were rather than taking what the Book of Mormon shows them to have been). So DNA is total non-evidence as regards the Book of Mormon, but we put it down as one more reason to reject historicity, and bring it up repeatedly. It isn’t a reason to conclude anything at all, at this time, and possibly never will be. With few exceptions (no matter what our stand on the Book of Mormon), we don’t really weigh the evidence in rigorous ways, but follow the narratives about Book of Mormon evidence that line up with our feelings about the modern LDS church and modern prophets.

    I personally think that Book of Mormon historicity will be vindicated by broader scholarship in the next decades. This is the clear pattern emerging as Mormon scholars read the Book of Mormon more critically (ignoring LDS cultural beliefs–even those from non-canonized remarks of Joseph Smith) and as archaeological evidence in Mesoamerica increases. (Along side the four books mentioned above, you might compare the evidences presented in John Sorenson’s book Mormon’s Codex. Much of the book only presents plausibility arguments, but a number of supposed anachronisms which have been used to criticized the Book of Mormon are turned on their heads with references to primary, peer-reviewed, non-LDS scholarship). However, people will find other reasons to not feel compelled to believe in the modern LDS church.

    It will be an ongoing, and likely unanswerable, question how much the 19th century ‘translation’ process introduced to the text. It will be possible to accept that Joseph Smith did something we can’t explain in capturing real cultures from the ancient world, but reject the notion that the agent behind it was God or an angel. It will be possible to point out the prejudices and flaws of the ancient writers and reject them as moral authorities. It will be possible to reject the modern church as a faithful continuation of earlier prophetic messages. Historicity will never be a logically compelling reason to be faithful to the LDS church, so practically speaking we would do well to worry about it less in our teaching and serving.

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    • L Thomas /

      Jonathan,
      Thank you for your well-thought out reply. As you point out, my post wasn’t really an argument against Book of Mormon historicity, but about my experience with no longer believing in its historicity. I understand that that can make some uncomfortable. In fact it probably would have made me, a few years ago, discount the essay. It probably means I lose a certain portion of the potential audience for this topic.

      I don’t necessarily want to spend a lot of time defending my view. The only point of evidence I used in support of my view was the DNA evidence. I didn’t bring this up as an example of proving the Book of Mormon ahistorical, but as an example of common Book of Mormon apologetics: no evidence, but we’ll explain the reasons why there aren’t any. This is in many more areas than just DNA. The fact that a small group assimilated into a larger culture is also used as an explanation for why no different “Nephite” people can be found. That the Nephites are too similar to Lamanites to tell the difference. Or a possibility is that when “Lamanite” people destroyed Nephite cities that they built over them or that they cannot be studied. Again, explanations for why no evidence is found, but no actual evidence.

      I won’t claim that every Book of Mormon history scholar makes similar claims, but they are the ones I see the most. On the other side, critics point to the Book of Mormon claiming hundreds of thousands, or even millions of Nephites, along with claims of very different belief systems and cultural practices. I think it is reasonable to ask where the evidence is. I respect your call for patience. I no longer hold out hope.

      I haven’t had a chance yet to read Sorenson’s new book, though I’m familiar with his earlier articles and books. His approach is what I enjoyed about historical Book of Mormon study – tying in the stories and people of the Book of Mormon into a historical context.

      I think it’s unlikely that all of the anachronisms will be vindicated. To me it’s difficult to accept the Book of Mormon as historical without accepting some form of the Ostler expansion theory. In that context anachronisms aren’t necessarily a problem. However, you then have another problem: if Joseph Smith had a hand in composition of the book, where does it stop? I can see then that people could have a problem with the expansion theory. This also requires a somewhat more liberal interpretation of how inspiration works and just how perfect, or imperfect, it can be.

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  6. The issue isn’t just one of DNA incompatibility (or the myriad other problems with the historical accuracy of The Book of Mormon). The issue is the incompatibility of religion in any form. I don’t have the ability to pretend in things I know aren’t true (faith) so it seems a bit easier for me than most. There’s certainly no evidence that Mormonism itself is any more inspired than the Bible itself, but many Mormons will reject Mormonism and then fall directly into the path of the oncoming Jeebus Bus, never stopping to consider the house of cards of Mormonism is built directly on top of an equally unsubstantial structure. Did you get your engineering degree at Brigham Young? Enjoy.

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    • L Thomas /

      It appears my post didn’t make anyone happy. Tim, it looks like you wanted my post to be about atheism or about the uselessness of religion. My post isn’t about religion, but about my experiences with Book of Mormon historicity. Even if I really wanted to write about Mormonism or religion in general I wouldn’t add it in to a blog post about the Book of Mormon and the Maya.

      And no, I did not receive my degree from BYU.

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  7. Brent /

    I’m with you Tim Fuller.

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  8. Jonathan Cannon

    It appears my post didn’t make anyone happy.

    It wasn’t a happy post. That said, it spoke to the experiences of many, I think. I’m glad it’s here.

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