Part 1 of John L. Sorenson's series on the limited geography of the Book of Mormon for the Ensign.

Sep 1984
John L. Sorenson

John L. Sorenson, "Digging into the Book of Mormon," Ensign, September 1984, 26–37

John L. Sorenson
Reading Public


Within the past several decades, professional studies in American archaeology, geography, culture, and language have provided an enormous amount of information of great interest to readers and believers of the Book of Mormon—information that earlier students of the book may not have guessed even existed. The quality and quantity of specialized studies relating to the Book of Mormon are so wide and deep today that no single person can possibly keep up on all aspects of that scholarship.

Indeed, in the past fifty years, much of what earlier generations thought about pre-Columbian American civilizations has been superseded. The sciences that study ancient civilizations have undergone significant changes. In the early decades of this century, science was still thought of as the search for and discovery of permanent and infallible truth. Today, scientists and philosophers admit the nature of their enterprise requires that they regularly reinterpret their theories and data. Karl Popper’s view of science as “tentative forever” has become widely accepted. So even though perhaps a thousand times as much information now exists about the early cultures of America as was available only half a century ago, nowadays the best scholars are far less dogmatic in picturing what happened in the pre-European New World.

Changes have also occurred in some ideas Latter-day Saints have had of the Book of Mormon. Our faith in the saving principles taught by the prophets from Nephi to Moroni has not changed; if anything, it has grown. But in considering scripture as an ancient document, the careful student is now aware that we have much more than we had suspected. Starting with M. Wells Jakeman, Hugh Nibley, and Sydney B. Sperry, the growing community of LDS researchers began in the late 1940s to uncover some of these details. This change of perspective—of seeing new possibilities—is exemplified by John W. Welch’s discovery a mere fifteen years ago that the Near Eastern literary form called chiasmus lay hidden in the Book of Mormon, unrecognized by its readers for almost 140 years after its first publication in 1830. 4In recent years, other workers have been finding unsuspected facts, patterns, and implications in the Book of Mormon that had been overlooked in an earlier day.

Many Latter-day Saints have not had access to sources which communicate how recent research has changed our understanding of the Book of Mormon as an ancient document. Many also are unaware of some rather surprising new discoveries supporting the Book of Mormon which have been brought about by the advanced methods of science. The purpose of this article and the one to follow is to sketch a few vivid examples of changes in how some Latter-day Saint scholars view the Book of Mormon in the light of new theories and discoveries about the past. These articles are not intended to be an expression of official Church teachings, but on the basis of my own research and study, I have thought this new information to be worth consideration.

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The Nephite and Jaredite Lands

Some readers feel that the Book of Mormon does not give enough information to construct a geography. Actually, there are numerous geographically-related statements in the book. When one looks carefully at these references, together with reasonable inferences that can be made from them, the book proves to be rich and very consistent in its information on this subject.

A substantive discussion of geography cannot be given in these limited pages. However, for at least the past forty years, many students of the subject who have studied it in depth have reached similar basic conclusions: (1) the events reported by Nephite and Jaredite scribes evidently covered only a limited territory in the New World “land of promise,” and (2) there is presently known only one location in the Western Hemisphere that seems qualify as that scene.

These are very important points. For a long time, few people seemed to see any difficulty in setting the Book of Mormon in all of North and South America. The geography seemed so obvious—a continent northward and a continent southward, joined by a narrow isthmus. Eventually, however, accepting that view of the Book of Mormon lands became difficult in light of new information. For example, by the early twentieth-century, research had found that as many as 1,500 languages had been in use in the New World at the time of European discovery. And new knowledge about the process of language stability and change made it impossible to suppose that all those languages could have derived from the Hebrew presumed to be the speech of the Nephites and Lamanites. Archaeology also began revealing a bewildering diversity of cultures, reinforcing the idea that many groups had lived in the Americas.

As early as the turn of the century, a few Saints began to look more carefully at what the Book of Mormon itself said on this matter. They found statements there indicating that the scene for Jaredite and Nephite history was likely more limited than they had previously supposed. Then, in 1939, the Washburns published a detailed analysis of the geography in the Book of Mormon based strictly on its own statements and demonstrating the consistency of those statements. Since the publication of their work, An Approach to the Study of Book of Mormon Geography, analysts of the scripture have found still more data in the Book of Mormon’s own statements suggesting that the immediate land covered by the book’s events was probably only hundreds rather than thousands of miles long and wide.

On the basis of my own research, I conclude with others that only one area qualifies in all respects—Mesoamerica. This is the name given by researchers of American civilizations to that portion of central and southern Mexico and northern Central America where the highest level of ancient cultural development in the hemisphere occurred. For example, the scripture says much about a long tradition of written records in Nephite-Jaredite territory. In Mesoamerica, over a dozen writing systems are known, some of which extend back, on present evidence, to at least the beginning of the first millennium b.c. Yet nowhere else in all the Americas do we presently have reliable evidence that a genuine system of writing and a tradition of books existed before the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century. Also, we can identify in Mesoamerica almost all of the kinds of geographical and cultural features specified by the Book of Mormon—the presence (and absence) in particular relationships of mountains, basins, rivers, “waters,” passes, “ups,” “downs,” “overs,” ruined sites with dating that coincides with the scripture, and so forth.

Of course, placing the Book of Mormon lands within a limited region like Mesoamerica requires that we take a fresh look at some of the long-standing questions that have been of interest to Book of Mormon readers. For example, how did the plates of Nephi get from the final battlefield near the “narrow neck of land” 11 to where Joseph Smith obtained them in New York? Here the Book of Mormon sheds no light. One obvious possibility is that Moroni himself may have carried the records to New York during his thirty-six years of wandering between the extermination of the Nephites and when he last wrote on the plates. (See Morm. 6:6; Moro. 1:1–4; Moro. 10:1.) Or he may have taken them there as a resurrected being. We only know that, whatever the means, in 1827 the plates were in the “hill of considerable size” near young Joseph Smith’s home at Palmyra, New York, where Moroni delivered the sacred record to him.

In many instances, once we see the likelihood of a limited scale for the Book of Mormon’s geography, questions about language, culture, racial affiliations, and other “problems” that critics have raised about the scripture come into an entirely different perspective.

So, focusing on data primarily from the Mesoamerican area, let us now look at the Book of Mormon alongside the best information available on civilization and geography there.

Citations in Mormonr Qnas
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