Two points about Book of Mormon geography

By Michael R. Ash
Mormon Times
Monday, Feb. 15, 2010

Before we can intelligently discuss supposed Book of Mormon anachronisms we need to explore the possible New World location for Book of Mormon events. A geographic model will help set the background for understanding many of the future articles in this series. First, however, some significant facts must be addressed to properly examine this topic.

1. There is no official Book of Mormon geography.

In the quasi-official Encyclopedia of Mormonism, the production of which was overseen by Elders Dallin H. Oaks and Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve, we find the following: "The church has not taken an official position with regard to location of geographical places (in the Book of Mormon)."

In 1993, in response to a query from the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, the office of the First Presidency faxed a statement, which reads in part:

"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 ... there are no conclusive connections between the Book of Mormon text and any specific site."

George Q. Cannon, First Presidency counselor to Presidents Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow, said:

"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 (a map). The word of the Lord or the translation of other ancient records is required to clear up many points now so obscure...."

Without revelation on the matter, we are left to our own intellects and theories. Why haven't we received revelation on this matter? Why haven't we received revelation as to the age of the Earth, the exact location of Jesus' birth, the precise location that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, the eternal purpose of dinosaurs or a definitive answer about evolution? Do the pearly gates "swing" or "slide"?

Like Book of Mormon geography, such issues don't affect our salvation. Some members, however, may struggle with their testimonies if they believe the Book of Mormon cannot be correlated to any real-world geography. Conversely, a reasonable geographic model can bolster the faith of other members.

2. Joseph Smith's comments should not be construed as revelatory.

Although most members tacitly acknowledge that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official position on the location of Book of Mormon events, some members seem to believe that statements made by Joseph Smith implicitly represent revelation on the topic.

Some have even gone as far to suggest that those who disagree with Joseph Smith's geographical comments are guilty of rejecting the prophet or that they are out of harmony with the LDS Church. This is a strange accusation and implies that those church leaders who have said that there is no official Book of Mormon geography are also on the road to apostasy, which is obviously untrue.

Just because Joseph translated the Book of Mormon doesn't mean he received revelation as to whereabouts of those events. When we read his statements on the matter, it becomes apparent that he had some strong opinions but that his opinions changed with time and reflected his best intellectual efforts to discover answers -- just as any curious individual would do. Because he never claimed to know the geography from revelation, we shouldn't make this claim for him.

This also applies to statements by all modern prophets. No prophet has claimed revelation on Book of Mormon geography, and their comments should be tempered by our discussion in issues 10-16.

Critics like to quote Joseph's mother, Lucy, who said that while Lord prepared Joseph to acquire the plates, "God ... manifest(ed) to him" some of the "particulars" concerning the Book of Mormon. According to Lucy, Joseph described the "ancient inhabitants of this continent," as well as their dress, mode of traveling, their cities and more (History of Joseph Smith, 83).

According to the critics, this suggests that Joseph knew everything about the Book of Mormon, saw exactly what their lives were like, and would know where the events took place.

Firstly, Lucy dictated her thoughts nearly two decades after they happened. Secondly, just because Joseph saw such things in vision doesn't mean that Joseph knew the location of the events. Seeing people and buildings is not the same as seeing a map or satellite image. There is no evidence that God revealed the location of Book of Mormon events to Joseph Smith.


BYU prof finds truth and error(s) in Book of Mormon

2009 edition In new volume from Yale, linguist details hundreds of changes that could be made to match earliest text.

By Jeremiah Stettler
The Salt Lake Tribune
Updated: 09/11/2009

Spanish Fork Joseph Smith may have called The Book of Mormon the "most correct of any book on Earth," but that doesn't mean it couldn't use some correcting -- even now, 179 years after it first came off the press.

Regarded by a worldwide faith of nearly 14 million members as Holy Writ, the book is not wholly without errors -- typos, omissions, grammatical goofs and altogether wrong words. Mistakes have crept into the text since LDS Church founder Joseph Smith dictated the original manuscript, which he says he translated with God's help from gold plates.

Truth is, the book -- which tells the story of ancient American inhabitants who sailed from the Holy Land -- contained more than 2,000 textual errors in its first edition in 1830, according to Brigham Young University professor Royal Skousen's new book, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text , due out later this month from Yale University Press.

"If someone has the view that nobody has made a mistake, they are going to be gravely disappointed," Skousen says. "You see the fingerprints of human beings all over this text from its original dictation from Joseph Smith."

Yet Skousen also sees the fingerprint of heavenly revelation in the not-so-perfect text -- so closely analyzed by this professor of linguistics and English that multicolored sticky tabs curl from the pages of the 20 editions (some bound with rubber bands) in the basement office of his Spanish Fork home.

He has unearthed Hebrew-like sentences within the original manuscript containing conditional "if-and" phrases, instead of the more traditional "if-then" English constructions, that were altered in the earliest editions. He has discovered more than 130 words and phrases that, although printed in different variations in today's 1981 text, are fully consistent in the original documents. And he has identified redundancies -- an extra 47 of the seemingly ubiquitous "and it came to passes" deleted from various editions -- that reflect similar redundancies that appeared in the Hebrew Bible but weren't included in the King James version.

While The Book of Mormon's language has evolved since the dictation of Smith's original manuscript, Skousen says he has found no changes or errors within its pages that challenge fundamental LDS doctrines.

"It is a marvelous text," Skousen says. "I have never found anything that is not faith promoting."

Still, he has documented hundreds of cases of textual transformations within the book -- the "sword" of justice becoming the "word" of justice, the wicked being "rejected" rather than "separated" from the righteous, and the Lord knowing how to "succor" his people instead of "suffer" them.

He also has noted occasional mix-ups between Book of Mormon figures Benjamin and Mosiah, an abundance of spelling and grammatical slips, and sometimes-sentence-changing omissions such as this one from the Book of Alma, in which a prophet-father counsels his promiscuous son on how to find forgiveness.

"Acknowledge your faults and repair that wrong which ye have done," the original manuscript reads. The 1830 edition changed "repair" to "retain." The 1920 and 1981 editions omit "repair" and "retain."

Based on more than two decades of research, Skousen's new volume (due out Sept. 22) features a reconstruction of The Book of Mormon's original text, complete with an appendix that highlights more than 700 significant textual changes since Smith's dictation.

This new edition of the bedrock LDS scripture -- appearing in an easier-to-read contemporary format -- emerges from Skousen's analysis of the original transcript (only 28 percent of the document survived), the printer's version of the manuscript (a copy of the original) and the 1830 edition.

It also boasts a prestigious publisher: Yale University Press.

"What this says -- from the standpoint of being published by a press of that stature -- is that Mormonism has become an exceedingly important part of the story of American religion," says Jan Shipps, a longtime scholar of Mormonism and an emeritus professor of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

The Yale edition also reflects Skousen's insistence on an independent scholarly review of The Book of Mormon, which he argues is necessary to bring the text "out of obscurity."

"The book stands on its own," Skousen says. "I don't think that anyone needs to worry that by having it independently produced divorces it from someone getting a spiritual experience reading it."

The LDS Church declined to comment on Skousen's work or the likelihood of the faith someday revising its 1981 text to reflect his findings. Instead, the church reprised a statement from 2008 noting that any editorial revisions to The Book of Mormon have been to eliminate typographical, grammatical and syntactical mistakes.

The church reports 4,000 edits since its first 1830 edition -- "which" was changed to "who" 891 times, "was" became "were" 162 times and "that" was deleted 188 times.

"The purpose of each new edition is to eliminate the human errors that have occurred," the statement reads. "This is all aimed at bringing the text into conformity with the message and meaning of the original manuscripts."

Critics contend that changes to The Book of Mormon's text cast doubt on Joseph Smith's claim that he translated the book through divine revelation. If the words truly came from God, they argue, why would they need correcting?

Perhaps one of the most controversial changes came in describing what would happen to dark-skinned people who followed Jesus Christ. The printer's manuscript suggests in 2 Nephi 30:6 they would become "a white and delightsome people." Later editions state that they would become "a pure and delightsome people."

Skousen dismisses any political motivations behind the current use of the word "pure," saying similar phrases with possible racial implications appear in 10 other places in the text. If the church meant to sanitize the book racially, he asks, why didn't it change all of those references?

As for Skousen, he has changed the text back to "white" to reflect the earliest manuscripts.

Daniel Peterson, a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, calls Skousen's work a "monument of LDS scholarship."

While some may view The Book of Mormon's textual imperfections as destructive to the faith, Peterson doesn't see it that way. To the contrary, the mistakes made in the earliest transcript confirm Smith's story that he dictated the narrative to a scribe. Why? Because the errors in that first manuscript were mistakes of hearing. Later errors in the printing process were mistakes of seeing.

Shipps, who is not a Mormon, seems equally willing to give the book -- though flawed -- the benefit of a doubt.

"I don't think it raises serious questions about The Book of Mormon as a text," Shipps says. Without modern-day recording equipment, "it makes perfect sense that a book that was taken down by dictation would get spelling wrong or words out of place."

Skousen doesn't expect all of his changes ever to appear in the church's official version of The Book of Mormon. It would be tough to read, for one thing, with nonstandard English and grammatical eyesores that appeared before the first printing.

But he believes many of the more significant shifts, supported by his analysis of the manuscripts, someday will.

"It may take a while," he says, "but I think they will probably end up in the standard text."

And, when they do, his goal, finally, will have come to pass. 


Book of Mormon as 'literature'

Forum to shift focus on possibility of it being fine reading

By Carrie A. Moore

August 5, 2006
Deseret Morning News


      Since it was first published in 1830, the Book of Mormon has drawn both praise and scorn from those with a vested interest in promoting it as either legitimate ancient scripture or a brilliant fraud.


      But a scholarly panel discussion scheduled Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Salt Lake City Library auditorium will examine the book from a variety of secular perspectives including as a piece of "folk literature."

      "Rediscovering the American Bible: An Invitation to Share the Book of Mormon from New Perspectives" seeks to open a "dialogue of honest inquiry and good will," according to Mark Thomas, one of the event's organizers and a faculty member at Brigham Young University.

      Panelists joining Thomas include Phyllis Tickle, noted Episcopal author and Publisher's Weekly religion editor; Robert Price, a New Testament scholar and member of the "Jesus Seminar"; Robert Rees, former editor of "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought"; and Richard Bushman, LDS historian and author of the recently released book, "Joseph Smith: Rough Rolling Stone."

      Thomas said the event grew out of discussions among several of the scholars who have come together each summer the past four years as the Book of Mormon Round Table, which is seeking to compile and edit several scholarly papers to be published in book form, explaining the book to an educated audience.

      The result is planned as "an introductory text that provides an eclectic approach" to the book, "utilizing the tools that one would use to interpret any text well: historical criticism, textual criticism and literary criticism, among others."

      Thomas said the forum is open to anyone "who wants to have a discussion in good faith," but won't be an arena for bashing the book or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

      To date, the book "has been used almost exclusively as a rite of passage into Mormonism. Essentially, the book has been buried by consensus and is still a buried text" when it comes to an wide public understanding of it, he said.

      The panel which is sponsored by the Center for Documentary Arts/The Leonardo doesn't seek to defend the antiquity of the book, but to examine whether it is worth reading "and why or why not? The fact that you label it 'ancient' doesn't necessarily mean that it's worth reading," he said.

      "It seems to me the fundamental issue about the Book of Mormon is that it has the possibility of being a life-changing book. Why do we have to decide exactly where it came from before you can read it? Some people think 'You've got to believe it's ancient or we're not talking to you.' I disagree with that."

      Thomas believes in the past few years, "non-Mormons have become better interpreters of the text than Mormons. Sometimes we're too literal and earnest about it."

      Tickle said the discussion "shifts some of the emphasis away from the Book of Mormon just as a sacred text and opens up the possibility of it being fine literature."

      The book is not only sacred to some 12 million people worldwide, but she sees it as "literarily and aesthetically important, and certainly culturally important. It's probably the best single window in terms of sacred literature of the American religious sensibility in the 19th century," when a potpourri of new religious movements were brewing in New England.

      From that perspective, "it's the clearest, most accessible explication or example of what that upheaval was all about. If you want to take it as just sacred literature, you can. Or if you want to see it sociologically as an expression of where Americans were 150 years ago, you can do that as well. It becomes an invaluable scholarly tool."

      "New" scripture that is unfamiliar to the majority always goes through a process of public scrutiny, she said. "Americans are just now getting to the notion that the Koran might be holy writ at least some fairly respectable people see it that way, that something in there is universally true."

      She believes the same may be said at some point about the Book of Mormon. "I'm hearing that more now in urban settings and lectures they will put it in the same sentence with the Bhagavad Gita or other (religious) literature."

      As Mormonism continues to gain members, prominent Latter-day Saints have also prompted interest in a cultural conversation about the book, she said.

      "There's a tipping point and that is not just the number (of Latter-day Saints). It is things like an Orrin Hatch, people like Marriott, who puts a Book of Mormon in every hotel bedroom, right next to the Gideon bible. After a few million of us spend a few million nights in Marriotts with that book in the drawer, some of us begin to read."