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The Book of Mormon and New World Geography

By Bill McKeever

Note: The following was originally printed in the March/April 2024 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.

“The Most Correct Book on Earth”?

It was back in 1969 when an LDS archaeologist named Dee. F. Green responded to what he called a “myth” regarding Book of Mormon archaeology. Writing for the periodical Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, he said, “The first myth we need to eliminate is that Book of Mormon   archaeology exists.…Biblical archaeology can be studied because we do know where Jerusalem and Jericho were and are, but we do not know where Zarahemla and Bountiful (nor any other location for that matter) were or are” (Dialogue, Summer 1969, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 77-78. Ellipsis mine). Not much has changed since Dr. Green penned those words over a half century ago. Once Lehi leaves Jerusalem, unique placenames in the Book of Mormon become sketchy.

Andrew H. Hedges, professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, offers an interesting glimpse into the “in house” controversy surrounding possible locations for places mentioned in the Book of Mormon. In the publication,  BYU Quarterly (Vol. 60, Number 3, 2021, 193), he begins his piece by saying:

Of the many unresolved issues facing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today, perhaps none has generated as much speculation and controversy as the question regarding where, exactly, the events recorded in the Book of Mormon took place. Beginning in Joseph Smith’s lifetime and continuing to the present, scholars and interested members alike have offered a variety of possible locations for the more prominent places mentioned in the text, including the city of Zarahemla, the “narrow neck of land” (Ether 10:20), the river Sidon, and the site of the last battle between the Nephites and the Lamanites. Scores of books, articles, and presentations have taken up the topic, with adherents of different viewpoints pushing the limits of decorum at times in their interactions with one another. In recent years, many have turned to websites, blogs, and YouTube videos to make their cases, thereby eliminating the need to subject their ideas to scholarly peer review in order to gain an audience.

Dr. Hedges notes that there have a number of theories among LDS members as to where people mentioned in the Book of Mormon lived once they arrive in the New World after their journey from the Middle East.

Variations of the once-popular “Hemispheric” model, which envisioned the whole of North and South America as the setting for the book’s events, have been joined in recent decades by more “limited” geographic models that see the book telling the story of a relatively small geographical area. Most prominent among the latter are the “Limited Mesoamerican” model, which places the book’s narrative in southern Mexico and Guatemala, and the “Heartland” model, which situates it in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys of the United States. Other suggestions include the west coast of South America, the Baja Peninsula, and even the Malay Peninsula or parts of Africa.

He then concedes that, “Remarkably, after years of research, discussion, and debate, the question of where the Book of Mormon played itself out is more wide open than it has ever been, with individuals from all walks of life and educational backgrounds weighing in on the topic” (193-194).

Whereas many BYU professors tend to hold to the “Limited Mesoamerican” theory, others, like Rodney Meldrum and Wayne May, promote the “Heartland” model. One argument made by proponents of the latter theory are the gold plates. Smith claimed that he was led to the buried record by the angel Moroni and that the plates were found in a “stone box” not far from Smith’s  home in the Palmyra area of New York. Dr. Hedges, states:

 For all its popularity, the Limited Mesoamerican model is not without its critics. Even without having an alternative location in mind, some have questioned the argument that the Book of Mormon text requires a limited geography in the first place or a hill vastly different from New York’s Hill Cumorah as the setting for the final battles. (198).

“Not surprisingly,” he says, “the North American model has drawn a strong response from the Limited Mesoamerican camp. . . supporters of a Mesoamerican location have argued that the region is a poor fit for the Book of Mormon’s internal geography and directions.” To be fair, supporters for the Heartland, North American theory, have responded with similar arguments against Mesoamerican theorists.

In recent years the two aforementioned theories have become the more popular views among LDS members. However, says Hedges,

other explanations of Book of Mormon geography, offering very different locations as the book’s setting, are still being actively developed and defended today. One, for example, drawing on a variety of geographical and archaeological evidence, argues for Chile, Peru, and Bolivia as the land of the Book of Mormon. Another, arguing from an almost purely geographical position (since any supporting archaeology appears to be almost entirely lacking) suggests Baja California. Still others reject the Americas entirely and posit a location on the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia or in Africa—possibilities which handily account for the Book of Mormon’s elephants, perhaps, but run afoul of Joseph Smith’s report that the book is a history of people who lived somewhere in the Americas.

In his final paragraph, Dr. Hedges states,

For all the evidence that each may be able to marshal in support of its position, no one has yet found any remains outside the Middle East that can be definitively linked to the Book of Mormon.

This is why the LDS Church History Museum doesn’t display Nephite artifacts. You can’t find artifacts if you don’t know where to dig.

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