Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Why the Mesoamerican photos in the 1963–1981 Book of Mormon are important

In my last post, I shared a set of photographs that were published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1963–1981 missionary edition of the Book of Mormon. These photos of of ancient sites, murals, textiles, and crafts from Mesoamerica are clear evidence that leaders of the Church since at least the early 1960s have considered Mesoamerica and South America to be potential locations for Book of Mormon events. (The publication of multiple articles in the Ensign magazine in the 1980s shows that belief persisted after the photographs were no longer included in the Church-published Book of Mormon.)

Our old fried “TwoCumorahFraud,” whose immature, mocking comments I no longer publish (see here), left a comment on that post that began with:
But The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints never taught the Two Cumorahs theory.
Heartlanders like Mr. Fraud and Jonathan Neville assert that mention in Church publications of connections between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican sites and artifacts is okay, as long as it doesn’t mean that the hill Cumorah itself was located in Mesoamerica. They insist—for reasons that still perplex me—that the hill Cumorah in western New York must be the one and only Cumorah and the place where the final battles of the Jaredites and the Nephites were fought because some leaders of the Church said it was.

The problem is that there’s no reasonable way to admit that at least some of the narrative of the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica and also insist that the hill in New York was the hill Cumorah described in Mormon chapter 6.

The problem—which John Sorenson documented decades ago—has to do with travel distances. The Book of Mormon doesn’t measure the distances it took for people to travel from one place to another in miles or kilometers, but it does regularly mention how many days it took for people on foot to go from point A to point B.

For example, the book of Mosiah describes Ammon¹ and his party departing Zarahemla and going south, up to the land of Lehi-Nephi: “And now, they knew not the course they should travel in the wilderness to go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi; therefore they wandered many days in the wilderness, even forty days did they wander” (Mosiah 7:4) “Wandering” clearly indicates that they did not know the route, so that tells us that a person who did know the route could make the same trip in less time. And that’s exactly what we see when Alma¹’s group makes the same trip, only in reverse, in approximately 22 days. This translates to a maximum distance of between 225 and 260 miles between Lehi-Nephi and Zarahemla. (See Sorenson’s The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book, p. 229.)

That distance is important because we also read about an earlier expedition sent by King Limhi from Lehi-Nephi to find Zarahemla:
And [King Limhi] said unto [Ammon¹]: Being grieved for the afflictions of my people, I caused that forty and three of my people should take a journey into the wilderness, that thereby they might find the land of Zarahemla, that we might appeal unto our brethren to deliver us out of bondage. And they were lost in the wilderness for the space of many days, yet they were diligent, and found not the land of Zarahemla but returned to this land, having traveled in a land among many waters, having discovered a land which was covered with bones of men, and of beasts, and was also covered with ruins of buildings of every kind, having discovered a land which had been peopled with a people who were as numerous as the hosts of Israel. (Mosiah 8:7–8)
Limhi’s expeditionary party did not know the way to Zarahemla; they only knew that it was in the lowlands to the north of the land of Nephi. This group was “lost in the wilderness for the space of many days,” but they eventually stumbled upon “a land among many waters” and discovered the ruins and remains of the Jaredite people. This land featured the hill Cumorah, which the Jaredites had called Ramah (Ether 15:11).

From this narrative, we can logically infer that the men of Limhi’s expedition knew the basic direction in which they needed to travel to get to Zarahemla; they just didn’t know the exact way to get there. They were only two generations removed from when their ancestor, Zeniff, had come from the land of Zarahemla to settle in Lehi-Nephi. They missed Zarahemla, overshot it by some distance, and stumbled upon the land where the hill Cumorah was. They believed they had found Zarahemla and that it had been destroyed (Mosiah 21:26).

If they hadn’t found the remains of the Jaredites, how far would Limhi’s party have traveled before realizing they were lost and turned back? We can’t answer this question definitively from the scriptural record, but it seems implausible that they would have traveled more than twice the distance that we know it to be. Let’s be generous and give them three times the distance—750 miles.

Google Maps directions from Veracruz, Mexico, to Palmyra, New York, United States And this is where we get to the important part: If at least parts of the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica, as Church leaders seem to have acknowledged by using photographs of that area in the missionary edition of the Book of Mormon published in the 1960s and 1970s, then it would have been impossible for Limhi’s expeditionary group to have traveled from there to western New York, a journey on foot of about 2,500 miles.

So it’s extremely unlikely—and I would argue impossible—for any part of the Book of Mormon to have taken place in Mesoamerica and still have the hill Cumorah of Mormon chapter 6 be in western New York. The distances just don’t work out.

Therefore, according to Heartlanders, the leaders of the Church must have been mistaken to include photographs of Mesoamerican and South American sites and artifacts in the 1963–1981 missionary edition of the Book of Mormon. Those were in no way connected to the peoples and civilizations of the Book of Mormon.

That’s not any different than Mesoamericanists claiming that leaders of the Church who have insisted on a single location for Cumorah—in the absence of any revelation on the subject, I wish to point out—were also mistaken.

Both theories require that one explain contrary statements and publications by Church leaders. It’s not nearly as cut-and-dried as the Heartlanders’ “scholars vs. prophets” claim would have us believe.

—Peter Pan


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