FAIR Conference: Roper's take on Book of Mormon geography

06 August 2010

Mormon Times

Trent Toone

SANDY, Utah Matthew Roper's presentation on the topic of "Joseph Smith and the Question of Book of Mormon Geography" was well-researched and insightful. Hundreds of people were there and engaged in his remarks.

Roper was the last speaker Thursday at the 12th Annual Mormon Apologetics Conference (FAIR).

Roper, a resident scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU, based his 90-minute remarks on four subjects:

1. Terminology do terms used by Joseph Smith in his descriptions of the Book of Mormon, such as "this land," "this continent," or "this country," indicate, as some have suggested, any specific American setting for the Book of Mormon?

2. Did Joseph Smith's revelations include details about the geography of the Book of Mormon?

3. Regarding a handful of articles published under the editorship of Joseph Smith in the Times and Seasons regarding Central American discoveries did Joseph Smith write these articles or were they written by others?

4. Might recent wordprinting studies offer a solution to the question of authorship?

Terminology used by the Prophet Joseph, such as "land," "continent," or "country," may not have meant a specific portion of land, like North America or South America, Roper said. Using examples, the scholar said "usage shows that the words were used in reference to all the Americas and not a limited location."

While Roper acknowledged Joseph received revelations about many things regarding the Book of Mormon, "the geography of the Book of Mormon narrative was not one of them." He used examples from the writings of Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph's mother, the naming of cities Zarahemla and Manti in Iowa and Missouri, the captivating story of discovering the bones of Zelph and references to the "Plains of the Nephites" as evidence of his claim.

"All of the Americas in North, Central, and South America were part of the land of promise to Lehi's seed; consequently, Joseph Smith's reference to the mounds, plains, bones of the Nephites do not explain to us where in the Americas those events described by Mormon took place," Roper said.

Roper talked about the 1841 publication of "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan" by John L. Stephens, which described for the first time many ruins found in Mesoamerica, which many claimed offered Book of Mormon evidence. A copy eventually found its way to Joseph, who found it interesting. This led to five articles in the Times and Seasons.

While differing opinions say otherwise, Roper said the Prophet was very interested in Central American discoveries because they supported the claims of the Book of Mormon.

Working with BYU statistician Paul Fields, Roper has been attempting to discover the author of three of five Times and Seasons articles that discussed Central American discoveries by using wordprint analysis methods. Analyzing 1,000-word blocks from articles by Joseph, John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, as well as the unsigned articles, tests were done and results led Roper to believe Joseph Smith was the likely author.

Summarizing his remarks, Roper said there was no indication that Joseph Smith ever sought to give a detailed geographical model for the Saints.

"The preponderance of evidence does not support the claim that Joseph Smith's revelations included details about Book of Mormon geography, but rather suggested that this, as with many other questions, was an issue where Joseph Smith, as time allowed him, to give it attention, followed the dictates of his own judgment and expressed his own thinking," Roper said.


Book of Mormon geography stirring controversy

Dueling theories Faithful at odds over where events may have taken place.

By Kristen Moulton

The Salt Lake Tribune

Updated: 03/25/2010

It has been more than half a century since the last big shift in thinking about Book of Mormon geography.

Judging from the commotion in the blogosphere and on rival theorists' Web sites, a dramatically different -- and disputed -- theory is gaining traction among some of the LDS faithful.

The theory, popularized by Rod Meldrum and Bruce H. Porter in the past three years, suggests that Book of Mormon events took place in the heartland of the United States, east of the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. They have popularized the idea at firesides and conferences, on tours of the Midwest and in DVD sets and books.

Next week, Meldrum, Porter and colleague Wayne May will conduct two conferences exploring the heartland model, which they believe answers the question that has enthralled generations of Mormons: Where did the historical events of The Book of Mormon take place?

Meldrum expects 300 to attend his conference Thursday and Friday at Zermatt Resort in Midway, just before the church's General Conference.

Porter says 600 already were signed up 10 days in advance for the conference sponsored by LDS Promised Land, a travel company, at SouthTowne Expo Center in Sandy. That conference also is Thursday and Friday.

The latter was promoted with an ad blitz, including blurbs by Mormon talk-show host Glenn Beck on the radio and the Internet.

"The word is out now. There is a movement going through the church," says Porter, a former LDS institute teacher who lives in Arizona and leads tours for LDS Travel, a company associated with LDS Promised Land.

"It just rings true to a lot of people," says Meldrum, a Provo businessman who quit his job to focus on research and promotion of the heartland model.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints long has held that God has not revealed Book of Mormon geography. The church has no official position on where, in the Americas, the civilizations of the Nephites and Jaredites lived and died out centuries ago.

For its first 100-plus years, most Mormons assumed the civilizations ranged over the entire Western Hemisphere, and that the "narrow neck" between "land north" and "land south" described in scripture was the isthmus of Panama.

But, in the 1950s, careful reading of the text led scholars to propose a more limited geography and since then, most of the dozens of theories have focused on "Mesoamerica," a region that includes southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and the northwestern part of Honduras and El Salvador in Central America.

Most LDS scholars still believe that region is more plausible because it fits the scriptural text and archaeological and anthropological evidence has been found through the years.

Meldrum and Porter come at the question from a different angle, and that's the source of the controversy.

They claim archaeological and DNA evidence for their model, but they start with what they say are 36 clear "prophecies and promises" in The Book of Mormon and statements by Joseph Smith, indicating he believed the history unfolded in what would become the United States.

For scholars to cling to a Mesoamerican model, Porter says, they must disregard what the church's founding prophet said.

"Most of the people fighting it are people who have something to lose financially or by reputation," Porter says. "I feel for them. ... How would it be when you've spent your life trying to prove The Book of Mormon location ... if someone came along and said you'd ignored the statements of Joseph Smith."

Not only does that assertion anger critics, who say it unfairly casts them as apostate, they argue it is flat wrong.

"They are trying to put us down when that's not at all what we believe," says Steve Carr, a retired pediatrician who is senior vice president for the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum.

That group sponsors an annual conference and its web site in recent months posted a series of articles refuting the claims of the heartland advocates.

Joseph Smith may have alluded to the United States as the home of the Nephites, but he also wrote near the end of his life, Carr says, that the history took place in Central America.

"He was just guessing like a lot of other people," Carr says. "A lot of things they take as revelation are just ideas, not revelation at all. "

Porter retorts: "He [Smith] either knew or he didn't know. If he didn't know, what was he doing?"

Porter and Meldrum believe the statements supporting Central America were written by Smith's colleagues rather than the prophet himself.

Michael Ash, who is on the management team of Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), argues the heartland advocates' methods undermine not only scholars, but also the church itself.

"Implicitly they're saying that Joseph Smith received the revelation ... and the leaders of the church are out of harmony with it," Ash says.

FAIR posted an extensive series of articles rebutting the heartland model on its Web site, triggering an ethernet shouting match with Meldrum in 2008 and 2009.

Meldrum and Porter say they are careful not to make claims counter to church teaching and to ensure it is presented as a theory, not fact.

Carr, at the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, says scholars and those who trust them are bothered by other aspects of the heartland model. "They are ignoring the archaeological and geologic aspects of The Book of Mormon," he says.

Mormon DNA experts say the latest DNA evidence cannot prove nor disprove The Book of Mormon, Carr says.

John E. Clark, an anthropologist at Brigham Young University, says he hasn't spent much time analyzing the heartland model because of such deficiencies.

"It doesn't fit the geography, the culture or the time period [described in scripture]," he says. "It has almost nothing going for it."


Debate renewed with change in Book of Mormon introduction

By Carrie A. Moore
Deseret Morning News

Published: November 8, 2007

A one-word change in the introduction to a 2006 edition of the Book of Mormon has re-ignited discussion among some Latter-day Saints about the book's historicity, geography and the descendants of those chronicled within its pages.

The book is considered scripture by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many lifelong members grew up believing that American Indians are direct descendants of ancient people in the book called Lamanites, who the book says built a civilization in the Americas between about 600 B.C. and 400 A.D.

Past LDS Church leaders, particularly former church President Spencer W. Kimball, have made such statements, which have been supported by the introduction page in the Book of Mormon. Past editions of that page say all of the people chronicled in the book "were destroyed, except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians." The new introduction reads much the same, but says the Lamanites "are among the ancestors of the American Indians."

The change was made in the second edition published by Doubleday, a hard-cover book that eliminates the footnotes Latter-day Saints see in their church-published books. The Doubleday edition is designed to be "reader-friendly" for non-Latter-day Saints who are encountering the book for the first time.

Last year's change "takes into account details of Book of Mormon demography which are not known," according to church spokesman Mark Tuttle. "The change will be included in the next edition of the Book of Mormon printed by the church."

He said the introduction page in current LDS-produced books "was not part of the original text translated by Joseph Smith Jr.," adding it was written and published in 1981. The church declined comment on who wrote that version of the page.

Andrew Corbin, a senior editor at Doubleday, said the one-word change was specifically requested by the church for the second edition published in October 2006. "It's been out for quite a while, so if there are other questions about the text, the church can better answer that."

The change is significant for those who have questioned the book's claim to be a historical record of people who migrated to the Americas from Jerusalem, rather than a creation of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, who said he translated it from plates given to him by an angel from God.

Claims in recent years by LDS anthropologist Thomas Murphy and former LDS molecular biologist Simon Southerton regarding the lack of a genetic connection to Hebrew blood in American Indians have caused spirited debate in some quarters about the book's origins.

Southerton, a former bishop living in Australia, was excommunicated from the church after his writings appeared. Murphy was threatened with church discipline over his writings.

Other Latter-day Saint scientists have challenged the assertions of both men, saying they draw conclusions well beyond those validated by existing data. Some observers have speculated the change was forced by the debate over DNA, but at least one LDS anthropologist said the change is welcome, although of minor consequence in the overall discussion regarding the Book of Mormon.

It "eliminates a certain minor embarrassment in the use of language, that's all," said John L. Sorensen, professor emeritus of anthropology at Brigham Young University, adding it has no impact on the substance of the book itself.

Sorensen's book, "An Ancient American setting for the Book of Mormon," outlines the "limited geography" theory and has become the definitive work to date on the topic among scholars. Its premise is that the book's characters lived within a fairly small region of Central America, rather than populating the entirety of North and South America, as some have speculated.

He said several LDS scholars have noted for decades that the assumption about "principal ancestors" was inaccurate.

The late Elder Richard L. Evans, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve from 1953 to 1971, described the Book of Mormon as "part of a record both sacred and secular of prophets and people, who (with supplementary groups), were among the ancestors of the American Indians." The description approved by the church's First Presidency was printed in a book titled "Religions of America," by Leo Rosten, which was first published in London in 1957 and subsequently reprinted in 1963 and 1975, Sorensen said.

With questions among LDS scholars about its accuracy, why didn't the change come sooner?

Sorensen said he believes it's simply "the principle of inertia." Such things are "not likely to be changed unless someone thinks there is something to be gained by making the change, or to be lost by not making the change."

"I don't think it means very much for anyone," he said. "The assumptions may have been and may be in the minds of some that the previous phrasing had substance to it. As a matter of fact, it was a sheer accident of someone probably (Elder) Bruce McConkie regarding 'principal ancestors.' No one checked it or questioned it, so it was put in the introduction."

Another change in the book's introduction may be of interest to those who question whether Latter-day Saints are Christians, but church officials declined comment about when that change was made.

The second sentence of the introduction in many editions says the book is "a record of God's dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains, as does the Bible, the fullness of the everlasting gospel."

The 2004 edition produced by Doubleday for non-Latter-day Saints omits the phrase, "as does the Bible." A church spokesman declined comment on when the change was first made or an explanation of why.

LDS leaders have long emphasized that the book is a second witness for Christ's gospel beyond what is contained in the Bible alone.


Religion in the News


The Associated Press

January 11, 2008

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) The introduction to the 2006 edition of the Book of Mormon has a new word: among.

It sounds trivial, but to some it represents a huge change to teachings that have been passed on for generations within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The new wording comes in a passage about American Indians, who have long been presented by Mormon leaders as direct ancestors of a lost tribe of Israel known as the Lamanites.

"After thousands of years all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians," the new introduction reads.

In previous editions, the phrase was "are the ancestors."

What's the big deal? Church defenders say there is nothing important in the change.

But skeptics view it differently. The issue is that church missionaries have long portrayed Book of Mormon stories as fact. To them, it looks like the new wording is a quiet concession that DNA research accurately contradicts the scriptural claim.

"Now they're going to say, 'We got that wrong?'" said Edmonds Community College professor of anthropology Thomas Murphy in Lynnwood, Wash.

A Mormon, Murphy said he predicted the church would ultimately concede the Lamanite story was folklore and not science in a 2002 essay that appeared in "American Apocrypha," a collection of writings about the Book of Mormon.

Murphy said the use of "among" makes a somewhat deceptive change. It gives the appearance that the institutional church is moving to a position more consistent with science.

"In a way, this is a mask for a more serious problem," said Murphy, who was also threatened with excommunication in 2002. "The Book of Mormon is entirely inconsistent with the archaeology, the DNA, actually with all the evidence we have from the ancient Americas."

Mormons believe the Book of Mormon was translated with a seer stone by founder Joseph Smith from a set of gold plates buried in upstate New York. The faithful consider it the word of God and a valid testimony of Jesus Christ's work in the ancient Americas. First published in 1830, it has been translated into 105 languages.

The introduction where the change has been made was added in 1981 and thought to be drafted by the late Bruce R. McConkie, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the second-most powerful church governing body.

John L. Sorenson, professor emeritus of anthropology at the church-owned Brigham Young University, said that altering what's understood to be an opinion doesn't change the church or the text of the book itself.

"Some people may want to twist this matter of a slight word change into something that they themselves want to communicate," said Sorenson. "An editorial commentary is all that has been changed. ... They might have decided to put more commas in."

Sorenson's own scholarship preaches a "limited geography" theory of Book of Mormon stories. Its premise is that the book chronicles the lives of people who lived in a small region of Central America. Mormon scholars moved away from any absolute beliefs about the ancestral lines of Indians, said Sorenson, who called the change a "backhanded" acknowledgment from church leaders of the scholarly drift.

"It's impossible for me to see what all the fuss is about," he said.

Bob Rees, a retired UCLA literature professor and a former editor of the Mormon Dialogue quarterly, is also puzzled. A central tenet of Latter-day Saint beliefs includes the principle of continuing revelation and an open religious canon, so change should be expected, Rees said.

"God speaks of the (Mormon) church as being a living church and if it is, that means it's not static, there's an opportunity for change," he said. "The history of science is the history of revising axioms. The things that we know and were certain of 100 years ago, 50 years ago, even 10 years ago, we now have to say, 'Wow, we didn't know.'"

As a believing member, however, Rees said he would have liked church leaders to explain the decision and eliminate the "great opportunity for rumor and innuendo."

Church officials have offered only a limited explanation.

"That change takes into account details of the Book of Mormon demography which are not known," church spokeswoman Kim Farah said, adding that the change will also appear in future editions of the book.

A church Web site also addresses the issue. "The scientific issues relating to DNA," it says, "are numerous and complex."