Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Basic Rules for Book of Mormon Geography

As a scholar, I often am asked by individuals to give my opinion on various proposed Book of Mormon geographies. So I have looked at a number of proposed Book of Mormon geographies. For many people, Book of Mormon geography is a gospel hobby. For those who have this gospel hobby, any disagreement with their particular geography proposal is somehow a rejection of the gospel, Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith. It is not.

Various proposals about Book of Mormon geography are guesses. That's right, your favorite Book of Mormon geography (if you have one) is a guess. The question is whether it is a good guess or a bad guess. How do you know? I have a few rules of thumb that I use to check proposed Book of Mormon geographies:

  1. It needs to actually match the Book of Mormon and all geographic references in the Book of Mormon. If it does not match the text of the Book of Mormon, it does not matter what else it does match; it cannot be right. So, if your geography fits perfectly except your narrow neck of land stretches from San Francisco to New York, that is not by any stretch of the imagination a narrow neck and it just doesn't work.

  2. Statements by Joseph Smith and other Church leaders about Book of Mormon geography do not overrule the text itself. Joseph Smith was the translator of the text, not the author. If he were the author he would be the ultimate authority on Book of Mormon geography, diction, history, everything. If we take the Book of Mormon as historical, then the ancient authors were the experts and the modern translator may not necessarily be an expert on any particular detail of the text or set of details in the text. Church leaders may know more about the text than I do, so their statements should be taken seriously, but they are not more authoritative than the scriptural text itself. If the prophet gets revelation on the subject, he will identify it as revelation.

  3. Careful readers of the text deserve more credence than careless readers of the text.

  4. Individuals who are making or soliciting money from their proposed geography are suspect.
    "He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion. Behold, the Lord hath forbidden this thing. . . . But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish." (2 Nephi 26:29–31)
    Individuals who are trying to make money off their geography are in into Book of Mormon geography for the wrong reasons. They should not be trusted.

  5. Individuals who chose a geography because of some sense of national pride or because of bigotry against some culture, nationality or ethnic group are not paying attention to the Book of Mormon.
    "Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God." (1 Nephi 17:35)
    The Book of Mormon provides numerous examples of individuals who invited those of other nationalities to partake of the gospel message. So if you are using the Book of Mormon as an excuse to puff up your prejudices against some ethnic group then you are missing the forest for the trees and you need to repent.

There are really only two reasons that I can think of why Book of Mormon geography matters:
  1. The Book of Mormon is historical and actually took place, which means it took place someplace.

  2. The geographic and cultural setting can potentially provide more insight into the text and make it more meaningful. 
If the geographic and cultural setting does not provide more insight into the text are we really all that much better off knowing exactly where things took place?