KnoWhy #739 | July 4, 2024

What Counsel Have Church Leaders Given about the Study of Book of Mormon Geography?

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Scripture Central

An internally consistent geographical map model of the lands of The Book of Mormon.
An internally consistent geographical map model of the lands of The Book of Mormon.

And when they shall have received this, which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them. 3 Nephi 26:9

The Know

Since the Book of Mormon’s publication in 1830, some readers have wondered where in the Americas its story took place. Over the years a variety of traditions and interpretations have been proposed. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not endorse personal interpretations of Book of Mormon geography as the official position of the Church, leaders have offered wise counsel on how members should approach study of the topic.

Nineteenth-Century Interpretations

Beginning in 1830 and throughout the nineteenth century, most readers assumed that Book of Mormon events took place throughout North and South America. It was assumed that South America was the land southward, the narrow neck was within Central America, and North America was the land northward. An article for the Ohio Observer and Telegraph reported that Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer Jr., Parley P. Pratt, and Ziba Peterson were teaching that Lehi and his family “landed on the coast of Chili [sic] 600 years before the coming of Christ, and from them descended all the Indians of America.”[1] In 1832, Lyman Johnson and Orson Pratt taught that Lehi “came across the water into South America. … The last battle that was fought among these parties was on the very ground where the plates were found, but it had been a running battle, for they commenced at the Isthmus of Darien and ended at Manchester.”[2]

Nineteenth-century publications reflect a surprising variety of opinion among members and Church leaders. The locations of Lehi’s landing, the land of Nephi, the land of Zarahemla, the River of Sidon, the narrow neck of land, and the land of Desolation were all debated.[3] Even the location of the Hill Cumorah, where the Jaredites and the Nephites were destroyed, was not considered a settled matter—certainly many assumed it was at the hill in New York, but at least one person proposed that it was in Honduras.[4] Notably, each of these points of disagreement was not over peripheral or insignificant matters but over key elements relating to the geography of the Book of Mormon. This wide diversity of views for most of the nineteenth century suggests that no one interpretation prevailed at that time.[5]

No Official Map

In light of this diversity of opinion among Latter-day Saints, Church leaders have long clarified that no official Book of Mormon map exists. In an editorial published in 1890 George Q. Cannon, then a counselor to President Wilford Woodruff, wrote, “The First Presidency have often been asked to prepare some suggestive map illustrative of Nephite geography but have never consented to do so. Nor are we acquainted with any of the Twelve Apostles who would undertake such a task. The reason is that without further information they are not prepared even to suggest [any such map].”[6]

Consistent with this policy, in 1920 the Church removed references to modern geographical correlations in the Americas that had been added to the Book of Mormon by Orson Pratt in 1879. James E. Talmage later explained that this was because after “days listening to the presentation of the subject of Book of Mormon geography” by various brethren, the Council of the Twelve determined that since “views differed as widely as the continent … the Church could not authorize or approve the issuance of any map, chart, or text, purporting to set forth as demonstrated facts relating to Book of Mormon lands.”[7]

About a decade later, President Anthony W. Ivins addressed the subject in general conference.

There is a great deal of talk about the geography of the Book of Mormon. … 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. … We do not offer any definite solution. As you study the Book of Mormon keep these things in mind and do not make definite statements concerning things that have not been proven in advance to be true.[8]

Elder Talmage reaffirmed the remarks of President Ivins, stating, “I encourage and recommend all possible investigation, comparison and research in this matter. The more thinkers, investigators, workers we have in the field the better; but our brethren who devote themselves to that kind of research should remember that they must speak with caution and not declare as demonstrated truths points that are not really proved.”[9]

More recently, Church leaders have provided additional counsel and direction. A statement on Book of Mormon geography that was prepared by the Church Historical Department and reviewed and approved by the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency states that “the Church’s only position is that the events the Book of Mormon describes took place in the ancient Americas. … The Church does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas.” It further states:

Individuals may have their own opinions regarding Book of Mormon geography and other such matters about which the Lord has not spoken. However, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles urge leaders and members not to advocate those personal theories in any setting or manner that would imply either prophetic or Church support for those theories. All parties should strive to avoid contention on these matters.[10]

In a 2016 address, Elder M. Russell Ballard encouraged Church educators to “keep updated on current Church issues, policies, and statements,” such as this statement on Book of Mormon geography, “to ensure you do not teach things that are untrue, out of date, or odd and quirky.”[11]

Focus on the Text

Without endorsing any specific map, Church leaders have encouraged those who do pursue their own research on the subject to pay close attention to the details of the text, which we hold to be revealed scripture. President Cannon stated, “Of course, there can be no harm result from the study of the geography of this continent at the time it was settled by the Nephites, drawing all the information possible from the record which has been translated for our benefit.”[12]

It is important to gain a solid understanding of what the text says about Book of Mormon locations and their relationship with each other. Elder John A. Widtsoe wrote, “Usually, an ideal map is drawn based upon geographical facts mentioned in the book. Then a search is made for existing areas complying with the map. All such studies are legitimate, but,” he cautioned, “the conclusions drawn from them, though they may be correct, must at the best be held as intelligent conjectures.” He expressed hope that “out of diligent and prayerful study, we may be led to a better understanding of the times and places in the history of the people who live across the pages of the divinely given Book of Mormon.”[13]

Keep a Proper Perspective

Church leaders have also counseled the Saints who study Book of Mormon geography to keep that research in proper perspective. In 1903 at a conference on the subject, “President [Joseph F.] Smith spoke briefly and expressed the idea that the question … was of interest certainly, but … not of vital importance, and if there were differences of opinion on the question it would not affect the salvation of the people; and he advised against students considering it of such vital importance as the principles of the Gospel.” Later in the conference, after several others had expressed their views, President Smith “again cautioned students against making … the location of cities and lands of equal importance with the doctrines contained in the book.” Before the conference closed, President Anthon W. Lund “advised those present to study the Book of Mormon and be guided by the advice of President Smith in their studies.”[14]

Be they matters of politics, social concerns, or Book of Mormon geography, wisdom counsels that we maintain balance in our lives. Elder Boyd K. Packer cautioned, “Some members of the Church who should know better pick out a hobby key or two and tap them incessantly, to the irritation of those around them. They can dull their own spiritual sensitivities. They lose track that there is a fulness of the Gospel. … They may reject the fulness in preference to a favorite note. This becomes distorted, leading them away into apostasy.”[15]

The Why

In revelations to the early Church, the Lord counseled the Saints to study more diligently to “obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man” as well as to seek “out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith”—all for “the salvation of Zion” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118; 93:53). In our day, Elder M. Russell Ballard stated that the “best books” should include “the scriptures, the teachings of modern prophets and apostles, and the best LDS scholarship available.”[16] Thus, studying Book of Mormon geography requires that we know the Book of Mormon itself well and understand what it has to say about the subject. This takes serious effort and persistence. We may benefit from the sincere and diligent efforts of others who have studied the issue as we try to learn all we can, but it is also wise to avoid the teachings of those who are dismissive of Church leaders and their counsel.

As we seek to better understand the Book of Mormon along with its geography, it is important to avoid placing issues of personal opinion and interpretation above gospel teachings. Mormon once lamented that at one point the Nephite members of the Church “began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure” (Alma 4:8). Whether our differences relate to politics, Book of Mormon geography, or other issues, we should never encourage a spirit of animosity toward those with whom we disagree or those who may not be persuaded by our own opinions. As Saints we can disagree respectfully without disparaging others or becoming cynical or angry. 

Diligent study, accompanied by humility and anchored in faith that the Book of Mormon is true, is a key to further knowledge and understanding and additionally prepares us to be more effective servants in God’s kingdom (D&C 88:77–80). The Lord counseled, “Let him that is ignorant learn wisdom by humbling himself and calling upon the Lord his God, that his eyes may be opened that he may see, and his ears opened that he may hear; for my Spirit is sent forth into the world to enlighten the humble and contrite, and to the condemnation of the ungodly” (D&C 136:32–33).

Further Reading

Gospel Topics, “Book of Mormon Geography,” online at churchofjesuschrist.org.

Matthew Roper, “Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review 22, no. 2 (2010): 15–85.

Matthew Roper, “Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations,” FARMS Review 16, no. 2 (2004): 225–275.

John A. Widtsoe, “Is Book of Mormon Geography Known?,” Improvement Era, July 1950, 547, 596–597.

George Q. Cannon, “The Book of Mormon Geography,” Juvenile Instructor, January 1890, 18.

[1] A. S., “The Golden Bible, or Campbellism Improved,” Observer and Telegraph (Hudson, OH), November 18, 1830.

[2] “The Orators of Mormon,” Catholic Telegraph (Cincinnati, OH), 1, April 14, 1832, 204–205.

[3] Proposals for the location of Lehi’s landing included Chile, Bolivia, Peru, southern Panama, and southwestern Central America. See Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News, 1882), 289; J. R. F., “American Antiquities,” Juvenile Instructor, August 1884, 250–251; G. M. O., “Old America,” Millennial Star, August 14, 1876, 518; “Facts are Stubborn Things,” Times and Seasons, September 15, 1842, 922; John E. Page, “Collateral Testimony of the Truth and Divinity of the Book of Mormon.—No. 1,” Gospel Herald, August 31, 1848, 108. Proposals for the land of Nephi included Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Guatemala. See Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London, UK: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–1886), 12:342, 14:325–26, 19:207; Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News,1879), 155; “Ancient American History,” Millennial Star, January 11, 1868, 22; Plain Facts for Students of the Book of Mormon, with a Map of the Promised Land (n.p.: unknown publisher, 1886), 5; John E. Page, “Collateral Testimony of the Truth and Divinity of the Book of Mormon.—No. 4,” Gospel Herald, September 21, 1848, 125–126. Proposals for the land of Zarahemla included Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico. See Journal of Discourses 12:342, 13:129, 15:257, 16:56–57, 19:207; “Zarahemla,” Times and Seasons, October 1, 1842, 927; John E. Page, “Collateral Testimony of the Truth and Divinity of the Book of Mormon.—No. 3,” Gospel Herald, September 14, 1848, 123; G. M. O., “Votan: The Culture Hero of the Mayas,” Juvenile Instructor, March 1879, 58. Proposals for the River Sidon included the Magdelena River in Columbia. See Journal of Discourses 14:325; 16:51; Book of Mormon (1879 ed.), 238; G. M. O., “Votan,” 58. Proposals for the narrow neck of land included Panama, Honduras, and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico. See John E. Page, Reply to “A Disciple,” Morning Chronicle, Pittsburgh, PA., 1 July 1842; “Zarahemla,” 927; Page, “Collateral Testimony of the Truth and Divinity of the Book of Mormon.—No. 3,” 123; G. M. O., “Votan,” 58. Proposals for the land of Desolation included Panama, Honduras, Yucatan, and the plains between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. See Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinborough, UK: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840), 21; Journal of Discourses 12:342, 14:331, 16:51, 17:273; Plain Facts, 3, 5; Parley P. Pratt, “Ruins in Central America,” Millennial Star, March 1842, 165; Orson Pratt, “Yucatan,” Millennial Star, November 15, 1848, 347; W. W. Phelps, “The Far West,” Evening and Morning Star, October 1832, [37].

[4] See “Mormonism,” Fredonia Censor, New York, 7 March 1832; Plain Facts, [1887], 3, [5]. Plain Facts is the earliest published suggestion that the Hill Cumorah, traditionally assumed to be in New York, may have been in Central America.

[5] See Matthew Roper, “Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations,” FARMS Review 16, no. 2 (2004): 225–275; Matthew Roper, “Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review 22, no. 2 (2010): 15–85.

[6] President Woodruff continued, “The word of the Lord or the translation of other ancient records is required to clear up many points now so obscure.” He deemed it unwise to represent any such map to members as the word of the Lord until the Lord is willing to make such information known through appropriate channels. George Q. Cannon, “The Book of Mormon Geography,” Juvenile Instructor, January 1890, 18. Three years earlier Cannon stated, “Assistant superintendent George Goddard wrote to me a short time since upon the subject of getting up a map under the auspices of the Sunday School Union that would illustrate Book of Mormon history. He thought it would be a great advantage to our children to have a map that would be deemed authentic for this purpose. His proposition led to correspondence upon the subject, and I think he became convinced that the suggestion was impracticable.” The issue at stake was not the study of Book of Mormon geography itself but the promotion of speculative views through the official organizations and publications of the Church that would give the impression of authoritative sponsorship. “Now I think it better that we should have no maps at all than to have an incorrect one. It is better not to attempt to teach our children upon the geography of the Book of Mormon than to teach them by means of agencies which are unreliable and misleading. If our children be permitted to conceive incorrect ideas concerning the location of the lands inhabited by the Nephites and the sites of their cities, it will be difficult to eradicate them. Therefore, I am clearly of the opinion that it is unwise to use means of this character to illustrate the Book of Mormon.” George Q. Cannon, “Topics of the Times,” Juvenile Instructor, July 1887, 221.

[7] James E. Talmage to Jean R. Driggs, 23 February 1923, MS1232, James E. Talmage Collection, Church Historian’s Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

[8] Anthony W. Ivins, in Conference Report, April 1929, 15–16.

[9] James E. Talmage, in Conference Report, April 1929, 44.

[10] Gospel Topics, “Book of Mormon Geography,” online at churchofjesuschrist.org.

[11] M. Russell Ballard, “By Study and by Faith,” Religious Educator 17, no. 3 (2016): 7.

[12] Cannon, “Book of Mormon Geography,” 18.

[13] John A. Widtsoe, “Is Book of Mormon Geography Known?,” Improvement Era, July 1950, 597.

[14] “Book of Mormon Students Meet: Interesting Convention Held in Provo Saturday and Sunday,” Deseret Evening News, May 25, 1903; reprinted in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 108–110.

[15] Boyd K. Packer, “The Only True and Living Church,” October 1971 general conference.

[16] Ballard, “By Study and by Faith,” 4.

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