Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Final Battle for Cumorah

 Brother John Clark wrote an article titled "The Final Battle for Cumorah," Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/2 (1994): 79-113. You can access it directly from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute here:


BookofMormonCentral references it here:


This is a seminal article because Brother Clark lays out the reasons why so many intellectuals in the Church reject what the prophets and apostles have taught about Cumorah. His arguments here have endured as an important part of the foundation for M2C.

The article is presented as a "Review of Christ in North America” (1993), by Delbert W. Curtis. Here is the Abstract: "Clark examines the scholarship and logic involved in assuming a one-Cumorah theory for Book of Mormon geography."

Notice the editorial position here. The "one-Cumorah theory" is merely an "assumption" that can be assessed by examining its "scholarship and logic." That statement is a poetically concise description of M2C.

Brother Clark usually does a nice job cutting to the key issues, and this article is no exception. In fact, one of his observations on page 84 helped lead me to embark on this review of Cumorah issues. 


"But these other scholars are never cited, nor is it clear that Curtis has read them with anything but disdain...."


I agree with Brother Clark that it is important to cite scholars specifically and to read them with respect and due consideration.

Here's another important observation from p. 84.


Anyone with over a month's experience in the Church knows that interpretation of scriptures is tricky business and that differences of opinion are rarely resolved, especially when it concerns what someone "meant." The existence of Curtis's book is clear evidence that the scriptures for Zion and the land of promise can be read in a narrow sense. The question, however, is whether they should be.


The semantic debates are, ultimately, nothing more than bias confirmation. If you want to believe a scripture means one thing, you can interpret it that way. If I want to believe it means something else, I can interpret it my way. Most of the debates about Book of Mormon geography involve this type of bias confirmation that can never be resolved. That's how we have ended up with dozens of different theories about Book of Mormon geography.

The futility of private interpretation that Brother Clark describes here is precisely why we have prophets and apostles, a point that doesn't seem to dawn on him, as we'll see.

The specific example that prompted Brother Clark's comment was the quotation from History, 1838-1856 of a sermon given by Joseph Smith on 8 April 1844.[1]


The whole of America is the land of Zion itself from the north to the south, and it is described by the prophets, who declare that it is the Zion where the mountain of the Lord should be, and that it should be in the center of the land. 


This is often quoted as evidence that Zion is the entire western hemisphere, meaning the continents of North and South America, and Brother Clark adopts that interpretation as we'll see in a moment.

Back in 1994, people were citing Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, which put this passage in italics. People rarely read the rest of the sermon, but Joseph went on to say this:


I have received instructions from the Lord that from henceforth wherever the Elders of Israel shall build up churches and branches unto the Lord throughout the States, there shall be a stake of Zion; in the great cities as Boston, New York &c. there shall be stakes.


This observation, along with other contemporary references to the United States as "America" and the historical context of the division between the states in the North and South, suggest that Joseph used the term "the whole of America" to refer to the United States. Twelve years earlier, Joseph had received a revelation that said, "For behold, the Southern States shall be divided against the Northern States..." D&C 87:3. He was, in effect, telling his listeners that all of America, meaning the entire United States and not just the northern states where they lived, was Zion.

Of course, my interpretation is not binding on anyone else, and that's the point that Brother Clark tries to make. 


"The citation from Joseph Smith, as I understand it, appears to include "the whole of America." That this is "singular" only appears to weaken Curtis's reading that "Zion is from Mexico on the south to Canada on the north." Curtis appears to read the statement to mean that the land of Zion is in the center of the land; I think "center" refers to "the mountain of the Lord" as being in the center of the land.


In any event, why would anyone want to read this statement so narrowly? The obvious suspicion is that it is the only reading that will support Curtis's geography.


The same is true of the "Zion" scriptures. These appear to mention a Zion in "the tops of the mountains," a reference that many have considered as an accurate description of the Salt Lake City intermountain region. It would be a poor description indeed for the Great Lakes area." pp. 84-5.


Here, Brother Clark simply disagrees with Brother Curtis' interpretation, which he characterizes as "narrow," supposedly in contrast to Brother Clark's more "expansive" interpretation. He prefers his own view to Brother Curtis' because "The obvious suspicion is that it is the only reading that will support Curtis's geography." This is precisely the type of accusation to which I thought Brother Clark objected, yet he doesn't seem to realize what he is doing.

Parsing the grammar of someone's hand-written account of Joseph's spoken, extemporaneous sermon is silly enough, but characterizing someone else's interpretation as "narrow" and therefore invalid is worse. Prior revelations had identified Missouri as the land of Zion. How can it be unreasonable to ask what land Missouri is in the center of?

My point is not to resolve the question of Zion’s extent, but to show how even a writer as precise and careful as Brother Clark can be blind to his own analytical errors.



In the next part of his article, Brother Clark sets forth the Columbus argument that so many M2C writers have relied upon. I engage this just to show how easy it is to support one's argument by attacking an easy target and ignoring arguments that contradict what you're advocating.

Fortunately for Brother Clark, Brother Curtis is an easy target. Brother Clark quotes him as writing, "Columbus didn't actually come to North America..." Of course, that's factually wrong. The Bahamas and Cuba are north of southern Mexico and are part of North America.

In fact, the first place Columbus landed (probably--the location remains open for debate) was the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas. This is less than 400 miles from Florida. (Some LDS think Lehi landed in Florida.) On that first voyage, Columbus also visited Cayo Cruz in Cuba, which is only 134 miles from Florida.

By contrast, San Salvador is 1,400 miles from the east coast of southern Mexico. M2C scholars claim Lehi landed on the west coast of southern Mexico or Guatemala, which of course is even farther away from San Salvador, Cayo Cruz, and the other places Columbus visited in 1492.

Columbus landed within 134 miles of Florida, but over 1,400 miles from Mexico.

M2C scholars invoke all of Columbus' voyages, because on his fourth voyage in 1502 he visited Trujillon on the east coast of Honduras, which is closer to their Mesoamerican setting. But it is still far away. In addition to being the wrong coast, Trujillo is 300 miles away from Guatemala City—farther than he was from Florida on his first voyage.

Plus, before Columbus' fourth voyage in 1502, Cabot landed in Newfoundland (1497) and Cabral landed in Brazil (1500), so it's difficult to justify Columbus 4th voyage as the one Nephi described in 1 Nephi 13:12. Before the time of the events in verse 13, when "other Gentiles" were coming, the man in verse 12 had already sailed upon the many waters "unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land." This means the Bahamas and Cuba, not Mesoamerica. Columbus' fourth voyage to Honduras was too late to qualify.

If, as I believe, Lehi and Nephi crossed the Atlantic and landed in Florida, they would have sailed roughly the same route Columbus did through the Caribbean. The Mulekites sailed along a similar route.

There's another important point. Assuming Lehi sailed all the way to Florida through the area Columbus visited, it's not surprising that Nephi, having had a vision of the promised land, recognized the place when they sailed through the area on their way to the landing site in Florida. The M2C theory requires that Lehi landed on the west coast of Mexico, an area Columbus never saw or even came close to, which raises the question of how Nephi would have recognized it from his vision.

I realize all of this is getting in the weeds, but when M2C scholars insist Columbus visited Mesoamerica and not North America (meaning the U.S.), we have to assess their claims. No matter how you look at it, Columbus and Nephi are aligned with Caribbean voyages but not with a theory that has Lehi landing on the west coast of Mesoamerica.

This is a digression from Cumorah, obviously, but Brother Clark's Columbus discussion fails to take into account these critical elements.

As do the Columbus arguments of all the M2C proponents.



On, finally, to Cumorah.

On pages 93-4, Brother Clark gives a nice biographical introduction that contains good persuasion techniques:


For the first 22 years of my life I thought the location of Cumorah was well-known. as Joseph Smith received the plates from Moroni at that spot.


My father occasionally told us stories about the New York Cumorah that he had heard while serving a mission there during World War II. I was told of tremendous earthworks and defensive trenches encountered by the earliest settlers in Palmyra, and of large deposits of metal weapons.


I also heard of a vision wherein his mission president saw a red-headed Moroni lamenting over the destruction of his people. These were moving images in my youth. As with Curtis, I was extremely offended when I first heard the two-Cumorah theory. and I reacted strongly against it. 


Until I heard the two-Cumorah theory after returning from my mission, I had no idea that the location of Cumorah was even a question or that the location of Book of Mormon lands was a topic of research.


My initial reaction was to take offense and to argue the point with my roommate who was taking a class in Book of Mormon archaeology from M. Wells Jakeman. In the course of our arguments, it soon dawned on me that I had unthinkingly accepted a traditional view of the matter and had never seriously looked at the statements from the Book of Mormon.


The internal evidence from the Book of Mormon eventually convinced me that I had been naive in accepting the traditional view and that there must be two hills called Cumorah: that of the Book of Mormon and one in New York.


I especially enjoyed this biohistory because it's the inverse of the one I use all the time; i.e., that I had been an M2C believer/proponent for decades before, to use Brother Clark's words, "it dawned on me that I had unthinkingly accepted a traditional view of the matter."

In other words, by the time I went to BYU, Brother Clark and his fellow M2C promoters had successfully reversed the "traditional view of the matter" by replacing the words of the prophets with the words of the scholars.

Figure 17 - BYU abstract map

As of 2020, students at BYU and in CES are never taught what the prophets and apostles have consistently taught about the Hill Cumorah. 

Instead, they are presented with this fantasy map of Book of Mormon geography that is computer generated and based on the M2C interpretation of the text!




The map is supposedly based on the "best interpretation" of the text, by which the intellectuals mean their own interpretation, driven by M2C ideology. The map makes sure that students never make a connection between Cumorah and New York.

If they ask about this, their teachers tell them that the prophets have never taught anything about Book of Mormon geography.

When confronted with Letter VII and other references, the teachers say these were merely their private opinions.

“But were they wrong?” students ask.

The teachers will seek to avoid answering, but if students persist, every M2C believer will eventually say, essentially, that Joseph and Oliver were ignorant speculators who misled the Church about the true location of Cumorah.

(Or words to that effect.)


Figure 18 - BYU Studies M2C map

For the only alternative point of view permitted at BYU and CES, BYU/CES students can go to the home page of BYU Studies and find another "plausible" map that is the only one presented by BYU Studies.

Like BYU's fantasy map, the BYU Studies map also teaches students that (i) Cumorah cannot be in New York; (ii) Joseph and Oliver were ignorant speculators who misled the Church; (iii) all the prophets and apostles who have spoken about Cumorah were also wrong and should not have accepted what Joseph and Oliver taught; and (iv) students should believe their BYU/CES teachers instead of the prophets and apostles.


If you go to the BookofMormonCentral web page directory, you'll see that the people responsible for these maps are BYU professors who drive the M2C editorial policy.



In the next section of his article, Brother Clark explains and justifies this reversal of the traditional view from the New York Cumorah to M2C.

First, he cites David Palmer's "excellent" book, In Search of Cumorah: New Evidences for the Book of Mormon from Ancient Mexico.

We need to digress a moment to discuss Brother Palmer’s book.



Brother Palmer wrote the entry about Cumorah that is still found in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (EoM).[2] There, he cites his own book, John L. Sorenson, and John Clark. This practice of citing oneself, and citing people who cite you in turn, constitutes a citation cartel. I call it the M2C citation cartel.

Brother Palmer himself reviewed one of Brother Curtis' pieces in another article from the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon.[3] In that article, Brother Palmer wrote, 


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never taken an official position on issues of Book of Mormon geography. Some unofficial books, written before modern archaeological methods were applied, assumed that Mormon's Cumorah and the New York hill were the same. This tradition, begun by Oliver Cowdery, has continued to the present.


The New York hill came to be known as the one Book of Mormon location known with certainty. However, it was generally believed that Mesoamerica was the cradle of those cultures."


I provided that quotation to help explain Brother Clark's views and why he characterizes the Palmer book as "excellent." Brother Palmer frames the New York Cumorah as a "tradition begun by Oliver Cowdery," presumably referring to Letter VII without citing it. "Some unofficial books" assumed the tradition was correct, but they were "written before modern archaeological methods were applied."

This dismissive attitude toward Letter VII is the opposite of how Joseph Smith viewed these letters.

Joseph referred to the eight historical letters that include Letter VII as "President Cowdery's letters." Why? Because when he wrote Letter VII, Oliver Cowdery was the Assistant President of the Church--a calling that placed him senior in authority to the First and Second Counselors in the First Presidency. Joseph designated President Cowdery as spokesman.

Letter VII was published in the official Church newspaper, the Messenger and Advocate, copied into Joseph Smith's history, and republished in other official Church newspapers, including the Times and Seasons, the Millennial Star and the Improvement Era. Neither Brother Palmer nor Brother Clark mention any of that.

You can read everything published by the citation cartel--and everything in Encyclopedia of Mormonism--and never learn a thing about Letter VII and its context.

Declining to quote, or even cite, President Cowdery’s letters when discussing the Hill Cumorah is not polite or serious scholarship.

Which brings us back to Brother Clark’s article.



After citing Brother Palmer’s book, Clark continues his article with the following paragraph. I’ll proceed by inserting my comments after each paragraph of Clark’s article.


Clark: It is noteworthy that this [i.e., Palmer's] book is not cited by Curtis, nor are its arguments for the internal evidence for the hill Cumorah considered. This is not polite or serious scholarship.  


[Comment. Is it impolite and unserious because Brothers Palmer and Clark are both part of the citation cartel? Is Curtis supposed to cite and consider Palmer because Palmer cited Clark in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism? There is no requirement to cite and address every book on a topic. It is just as impolite and unserious for Palmer and Clark to not cite and consider Letter VII.] 


Clark: The location of the hill Cumorah is the primary strut in Curtis's argument for Book of Mormon lands, yet he presents no analysis of the statements from the Book of Mormon which reveal features of this hill. 


[Comment. When we read the Palmer/Clark list of "features of this hill" supposedly "revealed" by the statements in the Book of Mormon, we see they are merely self-serving, circuitous interpretations designed to point to Central America.] 


Clark: He assumes that the New York Cumorah and that mentioned in the Book of Mormon are one and the same. All his arguments for the configuration of Book of Mormon lands (see next section) follow from the assumption that the hill Cumorah is the one known Book of Mormon location in the New World. 


[Comment. Brother Clark makes a good point here. Brother Curtis did make an assumption that Cumorah was in New York. The issue is the validity of that assumption. Brother Clark addresses that next.]


Clark: The meager evidence adduced to support this claim come from the "traditional" view and a few early statements of dubious origin. 


[Comment. I haven't read Curtis' book so I don't know if he cites other evidence, but let's look at what Brother Clark considers "meager evidence."]


Clark: Curtis's primary text is the Oliver Cowdery story of the Nephite records repository, as related by Brigham Young many years later. Until now, it has been quite easy to ignore this story as being devoid of specific content. 


[Comment. We can understand why M2C proponents have ignored President Young's account, and it's not because it lacks specifics. It is precisely because it contains specifics that contradict their M2C theory.] 


Clark: But in light of its place in Curtis's argument I cite it here and consider it briefly. 


[Comment. Kudos for at least considering it.]


Clark: On June 17, 1877, Brigham Young addressed the Saints in Farmington, Utah, on the occasion of organizing a stake there. 


[Comment. Brother Clark doesn't mention the historical context. This was one of the last sermons President Young gave. He died two months later on August 29th. He spent the last year of his life introducing important temple practices and reorganizing the Priesthood throughout Utah. He was quite ill but felt an urgency to leave the Church in as good a shape as he could. In this very sermon, he emphasizes that he discussed the room in Cumorah precisely so it would not be forgotten.] 


Clark: The primary focus of the first part of his discourse was to warn the Saints against seeking after money and precious metals. As part of this message he conveyed the following story:[4] 

"Oliver Cowdery went with the Prophet Joseph when he deposited these plates… [for sake of space I omit all but the first and last sentence from the quotation]

I tell you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others who were familiar with it, and who understood it just as well as we understand coming to this meeting, enjoying the day, and by and by we separate and go away, forgetting most of what is said, but remembering some things."

If we accept this story at face value, it would seem to indicate that the hill Cumorah in New York is indeed the one in which Mormon deposited all of the plates. 


[Comment. Do you see the argument here? If we accept what President Young taught "at face value" it destroys the M2C Therefore, Brother Clark and other M2C proponents cannot accept it at face value. Instead, they prefer to ignore it--and hope we ignore it also.

This is exactly the same argument the M2C proponents make for rejecting the other prophets and apostles; i.e., we should not accept what they teach "at face value." Nothing suggests that Brigham Young did not want his audience to take his statement at face value.]


Clark: There is no indication in this story that Joseph and Oliver were carried away in vision, rather, the circumstances appear quite pedestrian-a walk to the hill with the plates to return them to the angel. This story also indicates that at least two visits were involved and that other people were familiar with this story.


[Comment. Brother Clark recognizes that President Young spoke in a practical, matter-of-fact manner. But he begins his quotation where all the M2C writers begin because he does not want readers to know exactly how practical and real President Young was. When you read this full context, you see why Brother Clark and other M2C proponents always omit this part. Brigham Young introduced the account of Oliver's experience by saying:


"I lived right in the country where the plates were found from which the Book of Mormon was translated, and I know a great many things pertaining to that country. I believe I will take the liberty to tell you of another circumstance that will be as marvelous as anything can be. This is an incident in the life of Oliver Cowdery, but he did not take the liberty of telling such things in meeting as I take. I tell these things to you, and I have a motive for doing so. I want to carry them to the ears of my brethren and sisters, and to the children also, that they may grow to an understanding of some things that seem to be entirely hidden from the human family."


Brigham Young specifically grounded Oliver's experience in the reality of western New York; i.e., he explained that he, Brigham, grew up in that area and knew about it. 


So besides omitting Brigham's introduction, how does Brother Clark justify rejecting what Brigham Young taught "at face value?" He quotes another source.]


Clark: Heber C. Kimball alluded to a slightly different version of the story with the significant difference that a vision experience is mentioned.


"Brother Mills mentioned in his song, that crossing the Plains with hand-carts was one of the greatest events that ever transpired in this Church. I will admit that it is an important event, successfully testing another method for gathering Israel, but its importance is small in comparison with the visitation of the angel of God to the Prophet Joseph, and with the reception of the sacred records from the hand of Moroni at the hill Cumorah. How does it compare with the vision that Joseph and others had, when they went into a cave in the hill Cumorah. and saw more records than ten men could carry? There were books piled up on tables, book upon book. Those records this people will yet have. if they accept of the Book of Mormon and observe its precepts, and keep the commandments."


Now, it makes a great deal of difference whether we are dealing with a vision of a record repository or with a less miraculous event. The two statements cited above suggest that the matter will remain ambiguous until we receive further revelation on the matter. Given this uncertainty, it seems unfortunate to place so much emphasis on these cave stories one way or the other.


[Comment. I agree with Brother Clark that it does make a "great deal of difference" whether Brigham Young was relating an actual experience or a spiritual vision. The only reason to suspect the account was a spiritual vision is Brother Kimball's use of the term "vision" here. But "vision" is a synonym for "view." Brother Kimball could have meant the "view" that Joseph and others had. Why does that connotation make more sense? Because "Joseph and others" shared the same experience. They went into the cave and "saw more records than ten men could carry." 

To construe this as merely a "spiritual vision" we have to believe that (i) multiple people shared the same vision, (ii) that they had this vision on multiple occasions because they visited the depository at least twice, (iii) that Oliver was not speaking from personal experience when he affirmed in Letter VII that the depository was in the Hill Cumorah in New York, (iv) that Brigham Young didn't realize it was a "spiritual vision" but Brother Kimball did; (v) and that Wilford Woodruff and several others who also related this account were also misled into believing it was a real experience.

In addition, David Whitmer said Oliver told him about entering the repository. Elsewhere I've written a more detailed analysis of this incident, but this is sufficient for now.

The basic approach of M2C proponents is to generate confusion and conflict this way so that they, the scholars, can rescue us from the problems created by the supposedly inconsistent statements of the prophets and apostles. 

I think a better approach is to reconcile the supposed inconsistent statements. Understanding Brother Kimball's term "vision" as "view" is a simple way to reconcile the various statements and is consistent with the context of Brother Kimball's own statement.

Brother Clark and other M2C proponents also omit the conclusion of Brigham Young's account because they wish the account of the depository in the Hill Cumorah would be forgotten: 

"I relate this to you, and I want you to understand it. I take this liberty of referring to those things so that they will not be forgotten and lostCarlos Smith was a young man of as much veracity as any young man we had, and he was a witness to these things. Samuel Smith saw some things, Hyrum saw a good many things, but Joseph was the leader. Now, you may think I am unwise in publicly telling these things, thinking perhaps I should preserve them in my own breast; but such is not my mind. I would like the people called Latter-day Saints to understand some little things with regard to the workings and dealings of the Lord with his people here upon the earth."]


Brother Clark continues:


Clark: Contrary to some claims I have heard, the remainder of Brigham Young's discourse in Farmington that day gives no indication that this was one tall tale among many that he fabricated for the occasion. The direct historical background to this story, and the accuracy of the version recorded in the Journal of Discourses (or Brigham's memory of Oliver's account), are both important questions but are beyond my abilities to address. The story should raise a few questions for most Mormons, however, because it does not appear to conform to other information we have about the plates. Joseph Smith's official history indicates that the plates were returned to Moroni in a different manner than indicated in "Oliver's story."


[Comment. This is an example of Brother Clark's fairness and objectivity; i.e., he recognizes that some attacks on Brigham Young lack merit. But then he raises another perceived conflict: "does not appear to conform." Let's take a look as he quotes Joseph Smith-History 1:60:] 


Clark: "I soon found out the reason why I had received such strict charges to keep them safe, and why it was that the messenger had said that when I had done what was required at my hand, he would call for them. For no sooner was it known that I had them, than the most strenuous exertions were used to get them from me. Every stratagem that could be invented was resorted to for that purpose. The persecution became more bitter and severe than before, and multitudes were on the alert continually to get them from me if possible. But by the wisdom of God, they remained safe in my hands until I had accomplished by them what was required at my hand. When, according to arrangements, the messenger called for them, I delivered them up to him; and he has them in his charge until this day, being the second day of May, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-eight."

Of course, this account can be taken as an allusion to a return trip to Cumorah to deliver the plates as Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball mentioned, but it can also be read that Moroni visited Joseph and took the plates back.


[Comment. First, notice that Joseph did not identify the messenger here. Brother Clark assumes it was Moroni, and that Joseph delivered the plates directly to Moroni. Joseph did obtain the Harmony plates from Moroni when he took them from the stone box on the Hill Cumorah, but he handed these over to "a messenger" before he left Harmony. He never identified the messenger as Moroni and JSH 1:60 doesn’t either.

On their way to Fayette, Joseph, Oliver and David Whitmer encountered the messenger who had the plates and was taking them to Cumorah. Then in Fayette, Joseph received the plates of Nephi, which he translated in Fayette. Later, his mother said that the plates Joseph showed to the 8 witnesses he obtained from one of the three Nephites. Brigham Young's account is consistent with Joseph getting the Harmony plates from Moroni, turning them over to Moroni or another messenger when he was finished translating them in Harmony, receiving the plates of Nephi in Fayette from one of the 3 Nephites, taking these back to the depository in the Hill Cumorah, then getting them again to show the 8 witnesses.]


Clark: I would further suggest that the circumstances surrounding the vision given to the Three Witnesses, their stories of the experience, and Joseph's relief that others had seen these things, do not fit Brigham's version of Oliver Cowdery's story about returning the plates to an angel at the hill Cumorah, or of paying a return visit. 


[Comment. These are valid observations as traditionally interpreted, but the two sets of plates explanation addresses all of these and is consistent with the revelations in the D&C.]


Clark: Moreover, Oliver's and Joseph' s awkward silence about this event certainly cannot be attributed to hesitancy about testifying of angels, gold plates. and the like. 


[Comment. Another good point as traditionally interpreted, except that they had good reason not to discuss the depository openly. The treasure hunters were aggressive enough just knowing about the plates. As readers of this blog know, I think they moved the records in the depository, which is why David Whitmer later said the plates were no longer in Cumorah, but were not far from there. Oliver also said the plates were no longer in Cumorah. I think they used wagons to move them, which explains why Brigham Young referred to wagons, etc.]


Clark: There are issues of the timing of events and the reasons for silence here that I am not competent to address. 


[Comment. Fair enough. We didn't know about two sets of plates until recently.]


Clark: Certainly this story deserves more analysis in its historic context and more comparison to other claims we have for events surrounding the plates. Parts of the story do not square with other, more reliable information. Therefore, it would seem poor procedure to take the story "at face value" as certain evidence that Mormon's Cumorah was in New York.


[Comment. This is that "sowing confusion" tactic that the M2C promoters rely upon. In my view, we are justified in believing the prophets and apostles "at face value." I don't see the point of having prophets and apostles if we disbelieve them unless and until we can independently verify what they teach.

But that's my own bias. Obviously the M2C promoters take an approach different from mine.

The question for each of us is, which approach do you take?]


Clark: Curtis has proposed a procedure for dealing with conflicting claims from the early brethren. He argues that one give precedence to the standard works. What does the Book of Mormon tell us about the location of Cumorah? Palmer reviews the detailed evidence for the hill that indicates that the small hill in New York is an unlikely candidate. 


[Comment. These are the lists of criteria that are really just interpretations of the text designed to describe Mesoamerica.]


Clark: More convincing evidence for the location of Mormon's Cumorah/Ramah comes from a relative geography of natural features. The Book of Mormon clearly indicates that the hill Cumorah was (1) near a narrow neck of land in a land northward and (2) close to the borders of an East sea. These minimal and incontrovertible geographic relationships are not met by the hill near Palmyra, despite Curtis's claims to the contrary.


[Comment. The next section is a series of semantic arguments that I won't take the time to address, except conceptually. There are multiple “narrow necks of land” around the Great Lakes, which are definitely northward of most of the Americas, and Lake Ontario is the furthest east of the Great Lakes, each of which qualifies as a “sea.”


Clark: The major criterion for evaluating a geography is how well it can account for the complexity of detail in the Book of Mormon without recourse to special assumptions. 


[Comment. Throughout this analysis, Brother Clark is oblivious to "special assumptions" he makes, such as the critical special assumption that geographic terms used in the Book of Mormon are proper nouns instead of adjectives relative to the writer's perspective at any given time and place. He also conflates the various terms "narrow neck," "narrow neck of land," "small neck" and "narrow passage."]


Clark: The geography described by Sorenson, for example, that Curtis reacts against, can account for all of the unambiguous details of the Book of Mormon by making only one special assumption; the assumption is that the hill Cumorah in New York is not the one mentioned in the Book of Mormon. 


[Comment. Actually, the "special assumption" that stands out in Sorenson's work, as well as the work of other M2C proponents such as Brother Clark, is the "special assumption" that the prophets and apostles are wrong.

I just listed other "special assumptions" that Brother Clark doesn't recognize as he describes his own opinions.]


Clark: I think the Book of Mormon clearly describes a small land that has an East sea and a West sea, a land northward connected by a narrow neck to a land southward, and a major river in the land southward that runs northward. The hill Cumorah is described as in the land northward, north of the narrow neck, and near the East sea. Curtis's hill Cumorah, in contrast, is located to the east of his narrow neck of land , and to the east of the River Sidon and Zarahemla, and south of the East Sea.


[Comment. Every clause of that paragraph is based on unstated "special assumptions" that are not required by the text, but Brother Clark doesn't acknowledge those. Instead, he simply states his interpretation is "clearly described."

This lack of self-awareness renders the entire semantic discussion pointless. When Brother Clark either cannot recognize the assumptions he is making, or refuses to acknowledge them, engaging on a line-by-line basis serves no purpose. His entire analysis is pure bias confirmation. Informed readers can dissect it easily.]


Clark: All of the details of physical geography mentioned in the Book of Mormon, and those that can be inferred, fit more comfortably into a Mesoamerican setting than a New York setting. 


[Comment. Except the plants and animals mentioned, which according to Sorenson and other M2C promoters were errors or mistranslations on the part of Joseph (i.e., "horses" should read "tapirs"). And the obvious problem that volcanoes are never mentioned in the text but are ubiquitous in Mesoamerica. Same with tall, steep mountains, massive stone pyramids, jungles, jaguars, and jade.] 


Clark: In this regard, what is not mentioned or alluded to requires explanation if the Book of Mormon writers lived in New York. I cannot imagine Moroni in a cave in New York Cumorah working through the winter scratching out the history of the Jaredites on gold plates. Rather than lamenting his weakness in expression (Ether 12:25), Moroni should have complained of numb fingers, freezing cold plates, and inability to hold his stylus.


[Comment. Although Mormon notes he didn't have time or space to write about even a hundredth part of the proceedings of the people, including such important topics as shipping and building of ships, Brother Clark thinks he should have been complaining about cold weather. People have lived quite well in western New York for millennia.

In the next section, Brother Clark provides a cascading series of assumptions about what evidence we should expect where. Again, Brother Curtis is an easy target because he is insisting on a western New York location for the entire Book of Mormon. Brother Clark points out that Brother Curtis relies exclusively on McGavin and Bean's Book of Mormon Geography, which, as Brother Clark points out, was out of date even in 1948 when it was published, and anyway included a section on Mesoamerica as part of Book of Mormon lands.]


Clark: The overall impression of Curtis's discussion of artifacts might appear impressive, but such an impression would be misleading. Christ in North America exhibits the common failing of amateur excursions into archaeology. Curtis lacks any appreciation of time, either in his construction of archaeological expectations or in his handling of the archaeological information. Curtis is interested only in showing that forts. weapons, and bones have been recovered in the narrow neck region in abundance. This is a good start. The critical question is: What do they date to? We are not told; Curtis does not cite any study that would contain this information. Archaeological dating techniques have come a long way since 1948. 


[Comment. These are good observations, and Brother Clark doesn't claim expertise about western New York, so he is probably unaware of the sites in Western New York that demonstrate Hopewell occupation in 300-400 AD, research that is ongoing. Hopewell are the Ohio-centered people who many of us think were Nephites, who fled toward Cumorahland as Mormon described in his own book.] 


Clark: The general cultural-historical picture for upstate New York, as I understand it, does not support Curtis's scheme. Our minimal expectations for the Book of Mormon are at least two traditions of civilization: Jaredite and Nephite/Lamanite. Curtis devotes all of his energies to discussing the period from the time of Christ to A.D. 400. What of the earlier periods? Is there any impressive archaeological evidence in New York for an early tradition? No. Here is a disconnect between expectations and the text.


[Comment. Brother Clark considers Mayan structures in Mesoamerica to be impressive and therefore expects no less of the Jaredites/Nephites. But the text never once mentions a stone building. In one passage a stone wall is mentioned, and there is no lack of stone walls in ancient North America. Everything else described in the text is made of earth and wood, with a brief exception for structures made of cement and wood. What Brother Clark is looking for does not appear in the text, so why would we expect to find it in the ground? In reality, ancient North American earth structures are extensive and sophisticated, just as we would expect from the text.

But the text does not require these in western New York. The Nephites fled to the area as a last stand. The Jaredites did likewise. We should expect some rudimentary hilltop defensive positions—which is what archaeologists have found.]


Clark: Most of the sites and weapons Curtis recapitulates from McGavin and Bean probably postdate A.D. 400. Undoubtedly much information has been destroyed, modified, and even misunderstood, but we would expect some information to survive.


[Comment. Here is an expectation that the archaeological record does fulfill.]


Clark: One of Curtis's main claims for archaeological expectations is that we are looking for things that we ought not. I think he is absolutely correct on this score. It does not follow, however, that his anemic list of archaeological expectations resolves the problem, especially when he ignores the bulk of the text. 


[Comment. I wonder if Brother Clark is writing tongue-in-cheek here, because as I pointed out above, the text does not describe what he expects to find. It certainly describes nothing like Mesoamerica.]


Clark: True, the Nephites did not move to the land northward until quite late in their history, but the Jaredites had lived there for over a thousand years previous to Nephite occupation. This is not a trivial point. Curtis's silence on the laredites is inexplicable.


[Comment. Given the paucity of information in the text about the Jaredites, most of what people write about them is speculative. Brother Clark and other M2C proponents think they have discovered Jaredite civilization in Mesoamerica, so they conflate those discoveries with what the text actually says. They "can't unsee" Mesoamerican any more. But that doesn't mean the rest of us are required to impose their vision on the text. Far more likely, the non-Jaredite Jaredites (descendants of Jared’s friends) migrated to Mesoamerica, while Jared’s descendants—at least Ether’s line—occupied the northeastern U.S.] 


Clark: Towards a Book of Mormon Geography

In this final section, I want to view Christ in North America in a broader context. It is my impression that no other topic in Book of Mormon studies lends itself so readily to poor scholarship as the subject of geography. 


[Comment. That's possible, but there's a lot of nonsense about other topics as well. Think "horses = tapirs" as an example.]


Clark: Christ in North America is merely the latest, but not the last, in a long series of highly improbable geographies based upon dubious assumptions, minimal research, fallacious logic, and wishful thinking. 


[Comment. This is ironic, given that Brother Clark has cited Brother Sorenson's work so often in this article. Certainly, Brother Sorenson has done a lot of research, but neither he nor Brother Clark recognize or acknowledge their own dubious assumptions, beginning with their shared assumption that the prophets and apostles are wrong. Extensive research that produces nothing but illusory correspondences is worth little more than minimal research; it amounts to wishful thinking.]


Clark: I find little of redeeming value in the substance of Curtis's book. But can anything of lasting value be salvaged from it? Yes. Christ in North America will stand for the next few years as an example of what not to do in writing a Book of Mormon geography. 


[Comment. Is he saying the worst thing to do is start with an assumption that the prophets and apostles are correct.]


Clark: I do not mean to be cruel or flippant in this claim; often a poor example of "scholarship" is more useful to the cause of science than a good one. Scholars wishing to write Book of Mormon geographies should heed the tragic lessons of Christ in North America and profit thereby.


What are some of the scholarly traps that one should avoid in writing a Book of Mormon geography? What can we learn from Christ in North America? First, one should avoid the trap of obvious facts. Curtis begins his study where it ought to end-with a known geographical Book of Mormon location in the New World. 


[Comment. There it is. We have to start with the premise that the prophets and apostles are wrong, unless we can independently verify what they teach. That's really the essence of Brother Clark's argument, and the essence of all the M2C arguments, including BYU's fantasy map.] 


Clark: Most of the distortions of the Book of Mormon text in Christ in North America are a logical consequence of assuming a priori that the Cumorah in New York is the one mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Curtis's unconvincing attempt to make this point serves as a useful caution for anyone seduced by this easy "fact."


[Comment. Brother Clark demeans anyone "seduced" by the unambiguous statements of prophets and apostles for over 150 years.]


Clark: The second caution is related to the first. Curtis's assumption of one known geographic point compromised the rest of his geography. 


[Comment. Again, believing the prophets is a mistake, according to Brother Clark. The other view: the only rational place to start is with the one known site. Recreating a geography of the Bible would be an exercise in futility of one started by assuming Jerusalem is a thousand miles away from its known location.]


Clark: One should work out a consistent geography based upon the information provided within the Book of Mormon itself, independently of any locations in real space that one thinks might be Book of Mormon spots. 


[Comment. This is the popular “abstract” approach that produced BYU's fantasy map, but if we apply this standard to any other source, such as the Bible, we'll also get myriad models of geography that have no relationship to the real world. No two people can possibly interpret the text identically because the geographic terms are too vague. So why bother? 

Here's why.

The scholars love this approach because, as Brother Clark exemplifies here, they have "special expertise" that empowers them with unique abilities to discern and interpret the text authoritatively. This work can't be left to mere prophets and apostles; in fact, teachings of the prophets and apostles must be repudiated unless and until validated by the intellectuals.

Notice that LDS intellectuals have titled their journal The Interpreter.  Like the scribes and Pharisees of the New Testament, these self-appointed guides take it upon themselves to determine what the scriptures mean. 

The other approach is to start with what the prophets and apostles have consistently and uniformly taught. That means there is one Cumorah and it is in New York. Everything beyond that is specifically identified as speculation, open to study, reflection, discussion, debate, etc. 

While Brother Clark may be correct that Brother Curtis may have fallen short of rigorous study and analysis, that's not because his fundamental premise was wrong.

I think anyone who starts with the premise that the prophets and apostles were wrong about Cumorah is not only embarking on a futile effort, but is leading others to doubt the prophets and apostles in their respective areas of expertise.] 


Clark: Very few Book of Mormon geography scholars have followed this procedure. but it is absolutely fundamental. 


[Comment. There it is again. It is absolutely fundamental to M2C to start with rejecting the prophets and apostles.]


Clark: It is hard to be convinced of a Book of Mormon geography when it is clear the author has not studied the book in enough detail to get the basic facts clear. 


[Comment. Every time I see or hear an M2C proponent make this argument, I ask how they identify massive stone buildings as Book of Mormon structures. They are inevitably surprised when they search the scriptures only to find that the text never mentions anything built of stone, except a single stone wall. Beyond that, much of what Brother Clark characterizes as "clear basic facts" are actually just his interpretations and assumptions.] 


Clark: In Curtis's book, his discussion of the River Sidon, the narrow neck of land, and the location of Cumorah in relation to Zarahemla all signal a basic misunderstanding or misreading of the text.


[Comment. Academic arrogance at its finest.]



I think I've covered enough of the article. Anyone interested can read and analyze the rest. I've gone through this material to show how the M2C proponents don't heed their own advice, and how they don't even realize it.




Here is a screenshot from Book of Mormon Central's listing of Brother Clark's article.



You can see from the links how thoroughly they want people to reject the prophets. They don't link to my short book about Letter VII, which was once in their database, because they removed it.. Instead, they link to their "response" to my book. Of course, they refuse to publish my response to that "response," leaving their readers misinformed, as usual, about the actual state of my arguments and what the prophets and apostles have actually said.

Pretty much everything on Book of Mormon Central is designed to persuade people to reject what the prophets and apostles have said about Cumorah in New York. They are clever; they portray themselves as following the Church's position of neutrality, but when you look closely, you see they are dogmatically advancing the long-held mission of their corporate owner; i.e., "to increase understanding of the Book of Mormon as an ancient Mesoamerican codex."

They are completely uninterested in neutrality; in fact, in their academic arrogance, they don't trust their readers with alternative viewpoints--including the viewpoints of the prophets and apostles.

No comments:

Post a Comment