To help class members understand what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery taught about the Hill Cumorah and how that helps readers understand the Book of Mormon and early Church history
Scriptures and references:
- D&C 9 & 10; 128:20
- Book of Mormon Title Page
- Mormon 6:6
- Joseph Smith-History 1:71
Discussion questions at the beginning of class.
How many class members have visited the Hill Cumorah? How long ago? What did you observe?
Why do we visit the Hill Cumorah. What happened there?
Responses will include: Joseph found the plates there, Moroni visited Joseph there, Joseph returned to the hill annually for four years before getting the plates, etc. Some may say the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites were there, while others may disagree, saying those battles were in Central America or Mesoamerica. Some may say Mormon's repository of Nephite records (Mormon 6:6) was there, while others may disagree.
The purpose of the lesson is not to debate questions about geography, but to educate people about (i) what the prophets and apostles have taught (ii) what extrinsic evidence there is to support those teachings, and (iii) how the Book of Mormon covenants relate to the promised land.
Emphasize that the Church currently has no official position on Book of Mormon geography and therefore each person is free to believe whatever he/she wants to believe on that topic.
What do we know about Cumorah?
From the scriptures:
Mormon 6:6 (the "last struggle" of the Nephites took place there; Mormon "his up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted" to him)
Mormon 6:11-12 (20,000 Nephites died at Cumorah. Note that verses 13-15 refer to Nephites who had died earlier in the wars leading up to the final battles at Cumorah, such as Mormon 4:11.)
Mormon 8:2-2 (Moroni was the lone survivor of the final Nephite battle at Cumorah)
From Church history:
That night Moroni also identified the hill where the plates were deposited as Cumorah.
Joseph visited the site on the hill annually. In early 1827, when Joseph was returning home after an errand in Manchester, he passed by the hill Cumorah. Moroni stopped him and chastised him for not being diligent, telling him the time was near when he would get the plates.
In September 1827, Joseph obtained the plates.
What happened after Joseph obtained the plates?
Joseph took them home, but a few months later, Joseph and Emma moved to Harmony, PA.
What was on the plates?
[Read the Title Page]
According to the Title Page, the record consisted of:
(i) an abridgment of the record of the Nephites,
(ii) an abridgment of the record of the people of Jared.
(iii) original material by Moroni (sealed by Moroni)
Notice, no original plates are mentioned; i.e., the plates of Nephi were not included in the plates Joseph obtained from Moroni's stone box in the Hill Cumorah. (We call these the Harmony plates.)
In Harmony, Joseph first translated the Book of Lehi. This was the 116 pages that Martin Harris lost.
When Oliver Cowdery arrived in April 1829, Joseph began translating the Book of Mosiah. They finished with the Book of Moroni and the Title Page at the end of May.
Why didn't Joseph re-translate the Book of Lehi?
When Oliver Cowdery tried and failed to translate, he continued writing for Joseph. The Lord told him "I would that ye should continue until you have finished this record, which I have entrusted unto him. And then, behold, other records have I, that I will give unto you power that you may assist to translate." D&C 9:1-2
"This record" refers to the record Joseph and Oliver were working on; i.e., the Harmony plates that Joseph obtained from Moroni's box, described by the Title Page.
What are the "other records" to which the Lord referred?
D&C 10 tells us. The section starts by explaining to Joseph that the people who stole the 116 pages would change the words and publish them if Joseph re-translated that part of the plates. Instead of re-translating the Book of Lehi, Joseph would have to translate the "plates of Nephi."
38 And now, verily I say unto you, that an account of those things that you have written, which have gone out of your hands [the Book of Lehi on the 116 pages], is engraven upon the plates of Nephi; [except Joseph didn't have the plates of Nephi yet]
39 Yea, and you remember it was said in those writings [the 116 pages] that a more particular account was given of these things upon the plates of Nephi.
40 And now, because the account which is engraven upon the plates of Nephi is more particular concerning the things which, in my wisdom, I would bring to the knowledge of the people in this account—
41 Therefore, you shall translate the engravings which are on the plates of Nephi, down even till you come to the reign of king Benjamin, or until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained; [Joseph apparently retained some of the translation he did with Martin Harris, which we refer to as page 117, and this is probably Words of Mormon 1:13-18. Verse 12 appears to be Joseph Smith's bridge between the plates of Nephi (with Mormon's sealing in verses 1-11) and the part he retained (page 117).]
42 And behold, you shall publish it as the record of Nephi; and thus I will confound those who have altered my words.
How did Joseph get the plates of Nephi?
Before leaving Harmony, Joseph gave the Harmony plates to a divine messenger. David Whitmer came from Fayette to pick up Joseph and Oliver. During the trip to Fayette, they encountered a man on the road who greeted them. David offered him a ride to Fayette but the man declined, saying he was going to Cumorah. David did not know what Cumorah was. He asked Joseph. Joseph explained that was the messenger with the plates.
[See the report of Joseph F. Smith for one of several accounts of this event.]
After Joseph arrived in Fayette, the messenger delivered the plates. Joseph translated them as 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon 1:11.
How do we know the Hill Cumorah is in New York?
Joseph's mother reported that the Angel Moroni referred to the hill as Cumorah even before Joseph obtained the plates, as mentioned in the first section above.
In 1834-5, Oliver Cowdery wrote a series of eight historical letters that were published in the official Church newspaper, the Messenger and Advocate, in Kirtland, Ohio. Portions of Letter I are included in the Pearl of Great Price as a footnote to Joseph Smith History 1:71. Joseph had his scribes (starting with Frederick G. Williams, Second Counselor in the First Presidency) copy the letters into his history as part of his life story.
Letter VII focuses specifically on the Hill Cumorah. When he wrote it, Oliver was Assistant President of the Church, a calling that includes acting as spokesman.
In Letter VII, Oliver described the hill this way:
At about one mile west [of the hill Cumorah] rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.
By turning to the 529th and 530th pages of the book of Mormon [Mormon 6] you will read Mormon’s account of the last great struggle of his people, as they were encamped round this hill Cumorah....
[Mormon] deposited, as he says, on the 529th page, all the records in this same hill...
This hill, by the Jaredites, was called Ramah: by it, or around it pitched the famous army of Coriantumr their tents.
Coriantumr was the last king of the Jaredites The opposing army were to the west, and in this same vally, and near by, from day to day, did that mighty race spill their blood, in wrath, contending, as it were, brother against brother, and father, against son. In this same spot, in full view from the top of this same hill, one may gaze with astonishment upon the ground which was twice covered with the dead and dying of our fellow men.
How would Oliver know that the hill where Joseph obtained the plates was the actual Hill Cumorah from the Book of Mormon?
1. Oliver was with David Whitmer when the messenger who had the Harmony plates said he was going to Cumorah.
2. Oliver visited the hill: "It was at the second mentioned place where the record was found to be deposited, on the west side of the hill, not far from the top down its side; and when myself visited the place in the year 1830, there were several trees standing: enough to cause a shade in summer, but not so much as to prevent the surface being covered with grass—which was also the case when the record was first found." Letter VIII.
3. On multiple occasions, Oliver actually entered the depository of Nephite records. Brigham Young and others explained this. [Brigham's comments are here:
4. Oliver worked closely with Joseph Smith from the time he met him in April 1829. He kept a notebook of what Joseph told him. Joseph approved of Letter VII on multiple occasions, showing he considered it valid.
What have the prophets and apostles said about Letter VII and the New York Cumorah?
Several of the original Quorum of the Twelve republished Letter VII and/or taught that the Hill Cumorah was in New York, including Parley P. and Orson Pratt, William Smith, Brigham Young, and Heber C. Kimball. Subsequent prophets and apostles, including Joseph F. Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith, Anthony W. Ivins, LeGrand Richards, Marion G. Romney, and Mark E. Petersen, have affirmed that the Hill Cumorah is in New York. No prophet or apostle has said Cumorah is anywhere else.
Why would Moroni put the plates in a stone box instead of inside his father's depository?
Orson Pratt explained that there were two departments in the hill.
When Joseph Smith first went to see the plates, he was tempted by the wealth they represented. He knew he could not sell the plates, but he hoped to find other artifacts he could sell. The gold in the plates was worth about $1 million in today's dollars, and an equivalent value in Joseph's day. It took four years of diligent patience for him to overcome that temptation.
Had Moroni led him to the depository instead, it seems unlikely that Joseph could have withstood the temptation. It was only after he had translated the Harmony plates that he realized Mormon's depository was in the same hill; after all, he had only translated Mormon 6:6 a few days before. Later, he had enough experience with revelation that he was able to resist the temptation when he and Oliver entered the depository and saw all the artifacts.
Why is this important to know?
There is a lot of confusion about Book of Mormon geography. So far, the Lord has not revealed the details to us, but the prophets and apostles, starting with Joseph and Oliver, unambiguously gave us the one pin in the map: Cumorah is in New York.
This helps us understand the prophecies and promises in the Book of Mormon relating to the promised land and the obligation for its occupants to (i) keep the commandments and (ii) take the Gospel to the world.