Evidence #320 | March 15, 2022

Rebuilding Burned Cities

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Scripture Central


The amount of time that elapsed in 4 Nephi before cities burned by fire were rebuilt and reinhabited is consistent with environmental studies of vegetation recovery after significant volcanic eruptions.

Destruction and Rebuilding in the Book of Mormon

The account of the great destruction which occurred in the land of promise at the time of the death of Christ indicates that many cities were destroyed by fire (3 Nephi 8:14; 9:3, 9–11). Recent research suggests that at least some of the destruction described at that time was associated with a significant volcanic event or series of related events.1 In Mormon’s description of the aftermath of that destruction, he noted that once “fifty and nine years had passed away … they did build cities again where there had been cities burned.” (4 Nephi 1:6–7). This timeframe accords well with studies of volcanic events and ecological recovery conducted in the 20th century.

Recovery of Vegetation after Volcanic Eruptions

The Indonesian volcano Krakatau erupted in 1883. Geologists tracked changes in the vegetation of the island in the years following the eruption. They found that while smaller plants began to grow in the area just a few years after the disaster, after 1919 significant woodlands had begun to develop over many parts of the island.2 P. W. Richards described the process of changes in the vegetation:

Once a fairly continuous plant cover had been built up, the environment must have become rapidly more favorable to plants. The shading of the soil would completely alter the microclimate of the surface, raising the average humidity and decreasing the range of temperature. The roots of plants would help to bind the sand, making it less loose and unstable. The dead remains of vegetation would also add humus to the soil, modifying both its physical and chemical properties. As the vegetation became taller and herbaceous plants gave place to trees all these effects would have become more pronounced.3

Richards compared the progress of vegetation growth following the Krakatau eruption with that following the 1902–1903 eruption of the volcano Soufriere on the island of St. Vincent in the Lesser Antilles. That eruption killed more than 1600 people and devastated the northern part of the island. During the event “a tremendous incandescent avalanche of red-hot dust and steam swept over all the slopes of the mountain and all vegetation appears to have been burned off.”4 Afterwards, a layer of volcanic ash covered the mountain surrounding the volcano.5

Soufriere. Image via Wikimedia Commons. 

Scientists continued to monitor environmental changes in the vegetation surrounding the Soufriere volcano over subsequent years. In 1933 one geologist found that the soil from the volcano, which had been ash at the time of the eruption, had undergone sufficient changes in about thirty years to return to a level comparable to that before the eruption.6 Based upon these examples of vegetation recovery, James Chase concluded that “in tropical climates a soil can be created from volcanic ash which is sufficient to support agriculture or climax vegetation in 30–40 years.”7

Recovery from fire in the Book of Mormon

In light of these findings, it is notable that Mormon reported the rebuilding of burned cities immediately after stating that “fifty-nine years [had] passed away” from the birth of Christ (4 Nephi 1:6–7). Based on the next time marker (v. 14), these renovation activities occurred sometime between the end of the fifty-ninth year and the end of the seventy-first year (that is, between twenty-five and thirty-seven years after the destruction at the death of Christ).8 This would make sense if some of those cities or their surrounding environment were indeed destroyed by fire in connection with a volcanic disaster. As shown above, by that time, the soil of the affected regions would most likely be able to once again produce the type of agriculture needed to feed large populations.

Still image from The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd.


The reported amount of time which elapsed before Book of Mormon peoples rebuilt and reinhabited cities destroyed by fire may seem strange to modern readers who are used to the practice of rebuilding relatively soon after destruction by fire. Yet this timeframe, only mentioned in passing in the text, fits well with what would be needed for agrarian communities in a tropical climate to recover after a volcanic event had set fire to their crops. The eruptions of Krakatau and Soufriere St. Vincent occurred decades after the Book of Mormon was published, and the studies of their subsequent environmental revitalization were not published until the 20th century, making them inaccessible to Joseph Smith in 1830.

Matthew Roper, “A Note on Volcanism and the Book of Mormon,” Insights: A Window to the Ancient World 29, n. 4 (2009): 4.

Jerry D. Grover, Geology of the Book of Mormon (Vineyard, UT: Grover Publications, 2014).

Book of Mormon Central, “What Caused the Darkness and Destruction in the 34th Year? (3 Nephi 8:20),” KnoWhy 197 (September 28, 2016).

Bart J. Kowalis, “In the Thirty and Fourth Year: A Geologist’s View of the Great Destruction in 3 Nephi,” BYU Studies 37, no. 3 (1997–1998): 136–190.

3 Nephi 8:143 Nephi 9:33 Nephi 9:9–114 Nephi 1:64 Nephi 1:74 Nephi 1:14

3 Nephi 8:14

3 Nephi 9:3

3 Nephi 9:9–11

4 Nephi 1:6

4 Nephi 1:7

4 Nephi 1:14

Book of Mormon

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