Some of my thoughts upon hearing what the Prophet teaches

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Gospel Topics essay on Book of Mormon

President Nelson made this comment about the name of the Church:
“We’re correcting an error that has crept in over the ages.”

A similar correction to errors that have crept in over the years has begun with a new Gospel Topics essay on Book of Mormon geography that has been posted on lds.org.

https://www.lds.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/book-of-mormon-geography?lang=eng

For decades I've attended Church meetings at which M2C* was being taught. I learned it in my classes in Seminary and at BYU. I went to an M2C fireside just a few months ago in Utah County. There was a large crowd of members of the Church assembled in a stake center to learn about M2C. I've attended others in chapels where current BYU professors have taught M2C. Such presentations conveyed the impression to Church members that the Church approved of M2C.

Worse, there was disparate treatment of different geography theories. While M2C presentations were allowed throughout the Church (including CES and BYU), other presentations that focused on the teachings of the prophets about the Hill Cumorah in New York were aggressively banned.

This essay declares that the Church now officially has no preference for one theory over another.

In other words, from now on, Church members will have no further reason to infer that the Church endorses M2C, and anyone who states or implies otherwise is contradicting Church policy.
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In the April 2018 General Conference, President Nelson said, "I know that good inspiration is based upon good information."

In this spirit, I'm offering suggestions to improve the Gospel Topics Essay by providing good information that it currently lacks.

Original in blue, my comments in red, other quotations in green.




Book of Mormon Geography

Overview



The Church takes no position on the specific geographic location of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas. Church members are asked not to teach theories about Book of Mormon geography in Church settings but to focus instead on the Book of Mormon’s teachings and testimony of Jesus Christ and His gospel.
Everyone agrees that the message of the Book of Mormon is far more important than its historicity. The quasi-official endorsement of M2C has been a major stumbling block for decades, both for members of the Church and for friends (investigators). And yet, as we'll see below, historicity is a critical element in fulfilling the purpose of the Book of Mormon.
Presumably "Church settings" in this essay includes classes taught by CES and BYU. Eliminating M2C from these classes is a tremendous change and a big step forward.
One area that this essay leaves unclear is how to deal with the consistent, persistent teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah. I have watched General Conference when prophets and apostles have explicitly taught that the hill Cumorah is in New York. These talks are still available on lds.org. Plus, the Joseph Smith Papers, including Joseph's own history, still contain explicit teachings about the New York Cumorah. 
As written, this policy appears to censor references to or discussion of these materials in Church settings. I suggest that if this is the intent, the essay should be more specific; i..e., it should say "Teachings of past prophets and apostles regarding the Hill Cumorah should not be shared or discussed in Church settings."
In addition to those general conference addresses discussed below, here are two examples in which the New York Cumorah was specifically taught:
General Conference talk by President Marion G. Romney: 
General Conference talk by Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Twelve: 
The risk of censoring such teachings, of course, is that Church members and friends (investigators) will only learn about these teachings of the prophets from critics, such as the CES Letter. That is the current situation, and it is causing confusion and dismay among active members of the Church.
I propose that the essay be edited to acknowledge the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah as a separate issue from the location of other Book of Mormon sites.
The Book of Mormon includes a history of an ancient people who migrated from the Near East to the Americas. This history contains information about the places they lived, including descriptions of landforms, natural features, and the distances and cardinal directions between important points. The internal consistency of these descriptions is one of the striking features of the Book of Mormon.
The term "the Americas" is a recent paraphrasing of actual teachings of the prophets. The essay would be more accurate to use the terms used by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, who referred to "this country" when discussing what Moroni taught about the remnant of the Lamanites. 
Since the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, members and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have expressed numerous opinions about the specific locations of the events discussed in the book. 
This paragraph of the essay conflates two separate categories of teachings by the prophets and apostles. Careful and complete analysis of the formal teachings of the apostles and prophets shows that they have always taught that (i) the Hill Cumorah is in New York and (ii) we don't know the locations of the other events in the Book of Mormon. This different treatment of the two separate topics has been consistent and persistent since the early days of the Church. The essay should be revised to clarify this distinction. The prophetic teachings about the New York Cumorah do not determine any other issue of geography, a point the prophets have made many times. 
Some believe that the history depicted in the Book of Mormon occurred in North America, while others believe that it occurred in Central America or South America. Although Church members continue to discuss such theories today, the Church takes no position on the geography of the Book of Mormon except that the events it describes took place in the Americas.
This is true with regard to point (ii) above, but all of the prophets and apostles who have ever addressed the issue have affirmed that there is one Hill Cumorah and it is in western New York. As written, this paragraph confuses members of the Church who study the teachings of the prophets and apostles. 
This paragraph also raises an important question about the so-called "abstract" maps used by CES and BYU, neither of which depict "the Americas." Instead, the youth of the Church are being taught that Lehi landed in a fantasy land that doesn't exist in the real world. The maps are generated by computer, based on the M2C interpretation of the text. The essay would be helpful if it stated a policy on the use of computer-generated fantasy maps to teach the Book of Mormon. 
The Prophet Joseph Smith himself accepted what he felt was evidence of Book of Mormon civilizations in both North America and Central America. While traveling with Zion’s Camp in 1834, Joseph wrote to his wife Emma that they were “wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls and their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity.”1 In 1842, the Church newspaper Times and Seasons published articles under Joseph Smith’s editorship that identified the ruins of ancient native civilizations in Mexico and Central America as further evidence of the Book of Mormon’s historicity.2
The first statement converts an inference into a declaration of fact and should be rewritten to accurately state the facts.  
Notice the difference between the two sources cited in this paragraph. 
The first source is directly from Joseph Smith--a letter he wrote to his wife Emma. 
The second source is an anonymous article that has been long attributed to Joseph, even though there is no historical evidence that Joseph actually edited the Times and Seasons and lots of historical evidence that he did not do so. (For example, he sent the letters that became D&C 127 and 128 to the actual editor of the Times and Seasons to have them published. Because D&C 128:20 refers to Cumorah, it should be addressed in this essay to avoid confusion.)
Furthermore, while Joseph's responsibility for or approval of the anonymous Times and Seasons article remains a topic for historical analysis because he never explicitly endorsed it, the essay should clarify that any statements about ancient civilizations in Mexico and Central America have no bearing on the explicit teachings of the prophets and apostles about the New York Cumorah. 
For example, Letter VII, which declares it was a fact that the Hill Cumorah in New York was the scene of the final battles of the Jaredites and the Nephites, was published in official Church newspapers, by Joseph's own brothers, both before and after the 1842 article cited above. 

Letter VII was published in the Times and Seasons itself in 1841 by Joseph's brother, Don Carlos, at the direction of Joseph Smith. Joseph's brother William Smith, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve at the time, republished Letter VII in the Church newspaper called The Prophet in New York City in June 1844--ironically two days after Joseph Smith was martyred in Carthage. 

Today anyone can read Letter VII in Joseph Smith's personal history in the Joseph Smith Papers, here:
Footnote 2 is also misleading and should be revised. It reads, "Although it is not clear how involved Joseph Smith was in writing these editorials, he never refuted them." The footnote claims that because we have no historical records of Joseph refuting these editorials, he therefore never did refute them. By this reasoning, because we have no historical records of Joseph explicitly approving these anonymous editorials, we should conclude he didn't approve of them. 

Both cases are examples of the absence of evidence fallacy. An accurate footnote would state, "Although it is not clear how involved Joseph Smith was in writing these editorials, there is no historical evidence that he ever explicitly approved of them or refuted them."

To reiterate, these editorials have no bearing on the location of Cumorah in New York. 
Anthony W. Ivins, a Counselor in the First Presidency, stated: “There has never been anything yet set forth that definitely settles that question [of Book of Mormon geography]. So the Church says we are just waiting until we discover the truth.”3
The inserted paraphrase is misleading and should be omitted because President Ivins was one of the Church leaders who made the clear distinction between (i) the known New York Cumorah and (ii) the uncertainty about the rest of Book of Mormon geography (the topic of his 1929 sermon).
On April 6, 1928, President spoke in General Conference about the Hill Cumorah in New York, which the Church had recently purchased. Both of his talks (1928 and 1929) should be addressed in this Gospel Topics essay; simply omitting one (and quoting the other out of context with a misleading paraphrase) creates a false impression of what President Ivins actually taught.
In his 1928 address, after discussing the Hill Cumorah in New York and explaining it was the location for the final battles of the Jaredites and the Nephites, President Ivins said,
All of these incidents to which I have referred, my brethren and sisters, are very closely associated with this particular spot in the state of New York. Therefore I feel, as I said in the beginning of my remarks, that the acquisition of that spot of ground is more than an incident in the history of the Church; it is an epoch—an epoch which in my opinion is fraught with that which may become of greater interest to the Latter-day Saints than that which has already occurred. We know that all of these records, all the sacred records of the Nephite people, were deposited by Mormon in that hill. That incident alone is sufficient to make it the sacred and hallowed spot that it is to us.... Those additional records will come forth, they will be published to the world, that the children of our Father may be converted to faith in Christ, our Lord and Redeemer, through obedience to the doctrines which he taught."
The distinction President Ivins made between Cumorah and the rest of the geography is made clear when the 1929 sermon excerpted in part in this Gospel Topics essay is read in context. Note what precedes the excerpt and bracketed paraphrase. "There is a great deal of talk about the geography of the Book of Mormon. Where was the land of Zarahemla? Where was the City of Zarahemla? and other geographic matters. It does not make any difference to us. There has never been anything yet set forth that definitely settles that question. So the Church says we are just waiting until we discover the truth. All kinds of theories have been advanced. I have talked with at least half a dozen men that have found the very place where the City of Zarahemla stood, and notwithstanding the fact that they profess to be Book of Mormon students, they vary a thousand miles apart in the places they have located. We do not offer any definite solution."
In 1929, President Ivins was not casting doubt on the location of Cumorah, as the Gospel Topics essay currently implies. This Gospel Topics essay would avoid confusion and fully inform readers by including both quotations from President Ivins' General Conference addresses to reiterate the consistent and persistent teachings of the prophets on these two separate topics: (i) Cumorah is in New York and (ii) we don't know where the other events took place.
The Church urges local leaders and members not to advocate theories of Book of Mormon geography in official Church settings. 
Again, this is a wonderful change from past practices which favored M2C over other ideas.
Speaking of the book’s history and geography, President Russell M. Nelson taught: “Interesting as these matters may be, study of the Book of Mormon is most rewarding when one focuses on its primary purpose—to testify of Jesus Christ. By comparison, all other issues are incidental.”4
Absolutely, I think everyone agrees this is the primary purpose for studying and sharing the Book of Mormon. We all love the Book of Mormon and want to share it with the world because it testifies of Jesus Christ.
The new policy that prohibits M2C presentations in Church buildings, at which M2C speakers repudiate the teachings of the prophets about the Hill Cumorah, is an important step to achieving the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon. 
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I hope my suggestions for improving the accuracy of the Gospel Topics Essay are helpful.
Now I'd like to comment on the historicity question.
Moroni explained why he and his father wrote the plates: "to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations."
The open question is whether a policy that censors the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah will enhance or detract from the effort to focus on the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon. 
I don't think that the teachings of the prophets about the Hill Cumorah detract from the purpose of the Book of Mormon; otherwise, they wouldn't have taught about the Hill Cumorah in General Conference and in other official settings. 
For that matter, Joseph would not have had Letter VII published and republished in all the Church newspapers of his day.
Today, thanks to the CES Letter and other critics, the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon is under attack much as it was in 1834 when Joseph and Oliver responded by writing the first Gospel Topics essays, the eight historical letters. They concluded that focusing on the facts--the facts of the visit of John the Baptist, the facts of the visit of Moroni, and the facts of the Hill Cumorah--were the best way to respond to claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction.
It seems to me that the responses they provided in 1834 and 1835 are equally effective today, if not more so.
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However, I realize that M2C has been taught for so long that it will take time before people are ready to accept the teachings of the prophets again.
While this Gospel Topics essay is an important first step toward correcting the M2C errors that have crept in over the years, I hope it's not the last step.  

For example, this essay should mean we will see a change in the artwork, media, and visitors centers that have been portraying M2C for decades, as we've discussed on this blog many times.

Because the Church now no longer has a position on Book of Mormon geography, we can expect a change in the visitors centers so they will no longer depict specific Book of Mormon settings, such as this display in the North Visitors Center on Temple Square that puts Mormon in a Mayan cave while Moroni is off in New York burying the plates. This display specifically teaches that there are two Cumorahs, one in New York and one in Mesoamerica.

I've discussed all of this many times on this blog and it's wonderful to see it being addressed in a Gospel Topics essay this way.

E.g., http://bookofmormonwars.blogspot.com/2016/12/yes-they-do-teach-two-cumorahs-theory.html


Maybe we'll even see BYU change it's M2C-inspired fantasy map that teaches students the Book of Mormon can best be understood as taking place in a fictional, computer-generated fantasy land.

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(*M2C is the acronym for the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory.)

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for your blog and for your thoughtful commentary. I have often wondered why one simple fact is ignored when contemplating the different archaeological evidence of past civilizations in North and South America. The Book of Mormon is a record written by Nephites primarily about Nephites and the cities described including their locations are primarily Nephite cities. I think this distinction is important because while we debate this information we seem to look right past how nothing is said of how many Lamanite cities there were or where they were located. We don't have a record primarily about the Lamanites and their cities and their activities. So while I believe there is no question as to the Nephites living close to the great lakes area and staying close to there with the exception of those who left to explore other lands, there is no reason not to believe the Lamanite empire didnt expand into South America. I also believe we need to do a better job of actually portraying the completely different cultures in the Book of Mormon. For example the Nephites dressed different than the Lamanites. Thank you again for your article and God bless you in your work.

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  2. I love this blog post so much!

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  3. I find it interesting that both links to the hill Cummorah talks take me to the 2018 October conference. Hmmm!!!

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