Tuesday, June 28, 2016

New introduction to Letter VII book

In response to reader feedback, I often make changes and adjustments to my books. (My publisher updates the printing notice each time. The Letter VII book is currently in its fourth printing, with the date June 7, 2016.) By convention, a new edition contains about 20% new or different material, so the only way to tell what version you have is by the printing date.

Usually I update the Kindle version, which I'm told updates the file whenever you sync it. [BTW, the Kindle version is free if you buy the paperback from Amazon.]

The readable version on Book of Mormon Central, here, is an early edition.

I mention this because I thought I'd post important updates on this blog for those who may have an earlier version of the book.

Here's the latest addition that appears on the dedication page:

Note to Readers:
If you’ve never heard of Letter VII, you’re not alone.
In Joseph Smith’s day, members of the Church knew Letter VII because it was republished several times. It was included in Joseph Smith’s own journal as part of his life story.  He referenced it in D&C 128.
In our day—2016—few Latter-day Saints have even heard of Letter VII. Fewer still have read it.
But that is changing.
We think Letter VII is an important, faith-sustaining explanation of one of the critical issues of our day. In it, Oliver Cowdery unequivocally declares that the Hill Cumorah—the scene of the final battles of the Jaredites and the Nephites—was in western New York.

Read Letter VII for yourself and see what you think.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The room in Cumorah - why it's important

The valley west of the Hill Cumorah in New York
My previous post about the room in the Hill Cumorah focused on Brigham Young's comments. He said Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery visited a room in the Hill Cumorah that contained numerous records on metal plates and other artifacts. They visited on multiple occasions.

The reason this is important for Letter VII is that if, in fact, Joseph and Oliver (and others) visited a room in the Hill Cumorah that contained the multitude of plates from which Mormon compiled our Book of Mormon, then that corroborates (I would say proves, but proof is in the eye of the beholder) what Oliver wrote in Letter VII.

The existence of the storage room in the New York hill is far more significant than the stone box in which Moroni hid the plates for Joseph to find. It's one thing for a solitary Moroni to haul plates to New York from somewhere else on the continent (or from another continent). It's another thing altogether for that same solitary Moroni (or for his father Mormon) to haul wagon loads of plates and other artifacts from somewhere else on the continent, just to store them in the New York hill.

To put it another way, if the room where Mormon hid all the Nephite records (wagon loads of them) was in New York, then Oliver Cowdery had good reason to write that it was a fact that the final battles also took place there--even if he didn't receive a specific revelation to that effect. And, in that case, Joseph Smith had good reason for endorsing and incorporating Oliver's account.

I think most readers of the Book of Mormon would agree with that statement. What do you think?


Commentator Rory offered this citation to Cameron Packer's excellent article on the topic that includes nine additional references to the room of records:


Here is the Abstract:

The significance of the Hill Cumorah in the restoration of the gospel goes beyond its identification as the ancient repository of the metal plates known as the Book of Mormon. In the second half of the 19th century, a teaching about a cave in the hill began surfacing in the writings of several leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In their view, the hill was not only the place where Joseph Smith received the plates but also their final repository, along with other sacred treasures, after the translation was finished. This article cites ten different accounts, all secondhand, that refer to this cave and what was found there. The author includes a comparison of the accounts that discusses additional records in the cave, God’s dominion over Earth’s treasure, miraculous dealings of God, and the significance of the presence of the sword of Laban.


Brigham Young made the point that Oliver didn't talk about this in public. He also mentioned Hyrum and Don Carlos as having seen the room. The other accounts have Hyrum telling Phelps about it, and so forth. You can read them at the above link.

Some LDS authors have speculated that this was a visionary experience. Yet the accounts refer to multiple visits by multiple people, including Joseph, Oliver, Hyrum, Don Carlos, and David Whitmer.

The two rationales I've seen for explaining these accounts as visionary are 1) such a large room cannot exist in a drumlin such as the Hill Cumorah in New York, and 2) the two-Cumorah theory requires that the room full of records be somewhere else.

I don't find these rationales persuasive because we know there is a stone-lined room in the Hill Cumorah that fits the description--reality trumps theory in this case--and because the two-Cumorah requirement is a rhetorical concept (a circular argument, really), not a requirement of the text.

This is another example of the simplest explanation and reconciliation rules.

We have multiple accounts (albeit hearsay) of Joseph, Oliver, and others entering a room in the New York Hill Cumorah that was full of additional plates and other artifacts. We have an actual room in the Hill that matches the description, although empty of artifacts at this point. We have Oliver writing that the final battles of the Nephites took place in the valley west of the New York Hill Cumorah. We have Joseph Smith endorsing Oliver's account and incorporating it into his own journal. We have multiple reprintings of Oliver's account while Joseph was alive. We have Joseph alluding to the Hill Cumorah in D&C 128.

The simplest explanation is that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites took place in the valley west of the New York Hill Cumorah, just as Oliver wrote. This simple explanation also reconciles all the available evidence.

The two-Cumorah theory requires a series of assumptions. First, that the multiple accounts of Joseph, Oliver, and others entering the room on multiple occasions are all visionary experiences. Second, that it is impossible to have a room in the New York Hill Cumorah. Third, that Oliver was merely speculating about the scene of the final battles, and that when he wrote it was a fact, he was lying or confused or inarticulate. Fourth, when Joseph endorsed and incorporated Oliver's Letter VII, he, too, was speculating.

I choose the simplest explanation. Others choose the complex explanation. I have no problem with whatever you choose, as readers here, so long as we are all clear on what our choices entail.

In my view, the multiple accounts of multiple people making multiple visits to the room in the New York Hill Cumorah that contained wagon loads of plates and other artifacts effectively corroborate Letter VII. And with Letter VII putting Cumorah in New York, we can work out Book of Mormon geography from there. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Repeat Over Again...the Same Things as Before

A question has arisen as to why Letter VII and the other letters written by Oliver Cowdery were reprinted so often. I happened to be reading a devotional address by Elder Bednar and thought it might be an answer.

Here's an excerpt:

We have learned to treasure the spiritual gems that are revealed through repetition. The distinctive nuggets of inspiration and spiritual knowledge that flow into our minds and hearts as we repeatedly teach and testify of gospel truths are the product of a line upon line and precept upon precept pattern of revelation. Repetition is a vehicle through which the Holy Ghost can enlighten our minds, influence our hearts, and enlarge our understanding.

Have you ever heard a Sunday School teacher introduce the topic for a lesson and thought, “I already know about this subject?” Have you ever heard a speaker in sacrament meeting identify the theme about which he or she will speak and responded, “Not again?” Have you ever wondered, “Why do Church leaders always address the same basic doctrine and principles in general conference?” Have you ever “checked out” mentally and spiritually because you anticipated an episode of repetitious teaching? We all have, of course. And we need to repent for doing so and more fully appreciate the value of repetition as a means of facilitating revelation.

Letter VII was originally published in 1835 in the Messenger and Advocate. Later that year, Joseph Smith had his scribes copy it into his journal as part of his life history. He could have simply referred to the Messenger and Advocate, but he felt it was important to include all the letters, together, as a single narrative.

Orson Pratt quoted from Letter VII in his 1840 pamphlet, Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, which is online here.

Later, when Benjamin Winchester asked for permission to reprint Oliver's letters, Joseph readily agreed. It wasn't until March 1841 that Winchester finally published the letters, as a single narrative, in the Gospel Reflector. That made the letter available to the Saints in Philadelphia and the Eastern States. Later, when the issues of the Gospel Reflector were bound, the volume was sold in Nauvoo. Wilford Woodruff purchased a copy for a friend who wanted to know what Mormons believed. The bound copy was, in effect, yet another republication of Letter VII.

Don Carlos Smith was the editor of the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo. Beginning in late 1840, he published portions of the Cowdery letters as well. Letter VII was published on April 15, 1841, making it available to the Saints in Nauvoo and to anyone who subscribed to the newspaper.

The letters were published as a separate pamphlet in Liverpool in 1844. That pamphlet was adapted from Winchester's Gospel Reflector and is available online here.

I think Letter VII was reprinted so many times because it was so important. Oliver's history was the most complete history of the early days of the Church until the serialized History of Joseph Smith began running in the Times and Seasons in 1842, but it was also important for people to know that the New York hill was a touchstone for the Book of Mormon. It was a connection between ancient and modern times--a pin in the map.

In fact, had Letter VII been republished after Joseph died, and maintained as prominently as it was when Joseph was alive, alternative theories about Cumorah may never have arisen.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

11 Documents part 3

Stephens’ Incidents of Travel and the Times and Seasons

6. 1841 Bernhisel letter. This is the thank-you note, purportedly from Joseph Smith, to John Bernhisel, who had given a copy of the Stephens' books to Wilford Woodruff to give to the Prophet. Brother Hedges infers that the letter is in John Taylor's handwriting, but so far the handwriting remains unidentified. The significance of the letter, based on its content alone, is unclear; it does not link specific sites anywhere in the Americas to the Book of Mormon.

More importantly, I think Wilford Woodruff drafted this letter and had it written out by someone with good penmanship. An entire chapter in The Editors: Joseph, William, and Don Carlos Smith is devoted to this issue. The evidence, in my view, is overwhelming, but we'll see what others think when the book is released later in June. I don't think Joseph had anything to do with this letter and never even saw it.

7. May 2, 1842 T&S editorial: "A Catacomb of Mummies Found in Kentucky." This 231-word editorial accompanies an extract from Josiah Priest's book American Antiquities. It is signed "ED." for Editor. Joseph Smith was the nominal editor at the time, which has given rise to a long-held assumption that he wrote, edited, or approved of the editorial. As I've shown in Brought to Light, the evidence instead points to other authors, operating under the generic umbrella of the "Ed." signature. I can find no extrinsic evidence that Joseph Smith wrote, edited, approved of, or even read any of these editorials (this one or the following four). As explained elsewhere, I think William Smith was editing the Times and Seasons, with the assistance of W.W. Phelps. William promoted the Mesoamerican setting even after he was excommunicated.

8. July 15, 1842 T&S editorial: "American Antiquities." This 249-word editorial accompanies another extract from American Antiquities. Again, it is signed "ED." for Editor. In Brought to Light, I demonstrate that the quotations in the July 15 editorial comes from the 2d or 3d edition; i.e., the one Benjamin Winchester used elsewhere. (Parley P. Pratt used the 5th Edition.) For the reasons set out in that book, I think Winchester probably wrote this editorial. His friend William Smith would have no problem publishing this editorial, or the ones that followed.

9. Sept. 15, 1842 T&S editorial: "Extract." This editorial comments on an extended extract from Stephens. It is unsigned (anonymous), but it concludes with the statement "surely the Lord worketh and none can hinder," an allusion to the masthead of Winchester's newspaper, the Gospel Reflector. I find it highly unlikely that Joseph Smith would have taken the time to find this long extract from the Stephens book and write this editorial without signing it, let alone without mentioning it in his journal or to any of the people around him (none of whom noted a single incident in which Joseph commented on or even read the Stephens books). Winchester never signed his articles, either when originally published in the Gospel Reflector or when republished in the Times and Seasons.

10. Sept. 15, 1842 T&S editorial: "Facts Are Stubborn Things." This brief editorial accompanies another brief extract from Stephens. The author would have had to search the Stephens books to find this quotation. The title comes from a famous saying by John Adams. I think Winchester wrote this editorial as well, although Phelps or William Smith could have done it (or edited it).

11. Oct. 1, 1842 T&S editorial: "Zarahemla." This is the editorial that claims Zarahemla is located in Quirigua. Although the writer equivocates a little, he places a heavy burden of proof onto those who disagree with that setting. It is this preposterous claim that I propose led Joseph Smith--who didn't see the article until after it was published--to resign as editor and fire William Smith from the Wasp (and the Times and Seasons).


The bottom line, as this brief outline explains, is that all the documents that can be directly attributed to Joseph Smith describe a North American setting. All those that describe a Central American setting cannot be directly attributed to Joseph Smith; to the contrary, the facts distance them from him.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

11 Documents: part 2

The Plains of the Nephites and the Hill Cumorah

4. 1834 letter to Emma. This is the letter Joseph wrote to Emma during Zion's Camp. He was on the eastern bank of the Mississippi and explained how the camp, which had just crossed Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, had been “wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionaly the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity.” We don't have the original of this letter, but the letter was copied into a letterbook which we do have. Consequently, it is in the handwriting of the scribe.

5. 1835 Letter VII. Everyone who reads this blog by now should know that Oliver Cowdery wrote Letter VII to explain that Cumorah--in New York--was the scene of the final battles. In it, he expounded on “the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.” He leaves no room for conjecture about this. However, as brother Hedges points out, Oliver did not discuss "the extent of Nephite lands or settlement, or where their civilization may have been centered."

Since 2007, we've seen that Letter VII was far more widespread and even ubiquitous during Joseph Smith's lifetime. It was published in the Messenger and Advocate (1835), copied into Joseph's journal as part of his life history (1835), quoted in Orson Pratt's 1840 pamphlet, republished in the Times and Seasons (1841) and the Gospel Reflector (1841), and published in Edinburgh (1844) along with the other seven letters in a special pamphlet. Joseph gave Winchester specific permission to publish Oliver's letters. I can't find any uncertainty or speculation about the New York Cumorah until the 1920s, when scholars from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first developed the two-Cumorah theory. Joseph Fielding Smith denounced that, "because of this theory some members of the Church have become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon." Nevertheless, LDS scholars picked up the RLDS theory and now, as of 2016, it is the prevailing theory among scholars, portrayed in Church media (including the Arnold Friberg paintings in the pages of the text itself). The two-Cumorah theory is as ubiquitous today as Letter VII was during Joseph Smith's day.

Summary: These letters put a pin in the map for the New York Cumorah and, arguably, for the plains of the Nephites (mentioned in several verses) in the Midwest. They are not specific about other locations, however.

Monday, June 20, 2016

11 Documents: Joseph Smith and Book of Mormon geography

Mormon Historical Studies
Spring/Fall 2007
In 2007, Andrew Hedges published an excellent article in the Mormon Historic Sites journal that discusses the 11 "particularly noteworthy" documents generated during Joseph Smith's lifetime that pertain to Book of Mormon geography. Brother Hedges states that "These are documents that were generated during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and that Joseph at least allowed, in one way or another, to be associated with his name in significant ways." None of these documents are holographic (in Joseph's handwriting) and none bear Joseph's actual signature.

Brother Hedges writes, "In the absence of any holographic material from Joseph, or a clear understanding about how each letter and document was generated and reviewed, the most that we can safely conclude is that Joseph allowed his name to be attached to them without later offering any sort of correction to them. Whether he completely agreed with everything they contained or not is impossible to say."

The idea that Joseph allowed all these articles to be associated with his name has long been the consensus view. However, new evidence made available since 2007, primarily through the Joseph Smith Papers, has given us more understanding about how these letters and documents were generated and reviewed. Based on my research, I think the consensus about Joseph's involvement with many of these items is inaccurate. I think most historians will agree when they examine the evidence.

Brother Hedges divided the documents into three categories.

Ambiguous Texts: Indians and the American Continent

The Plains of the Nephites and the Hill Cumorah

Stephens’ Incidents of Travel and the Times and Seasons

Here I'll briefly discuss the first category. In subsequent posts, I'll explore the remaining two categories, and eventually each item in more detail.

Ambiguous Texts: Indians and the American Continent

1. 1833 letter addressed to N.C. Saxton. This letter describes the Book of Mormon as “a record of the forefathers of our western Tribes of Indians. . . . By it we learn that our western tribes of Indians are descendants from that Joseph who was sold into Egypt, and the land of America is a promised land unto them.” [There are debates about what Joseph meant by "our western tribes of Indians" and "the land of America."]

2. 1839 history. Here, Moroni tells Joseph Smith that “there was a book deposited written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from whence they sprang.” [Note: In Letter VII, Oliver says Moroni told Joseph the record was "written and deposited" not far from his home, an important clarification. If the record was written near Joseph's home in New York, it obviously wasn't written somewhere else and then hauled to New York.]

3. 1842 Wentworth letter. The letter, written in first person and signed in print by Joseph, claims Moroni visited Joseph and told him about the plates containing "the records of the ancient prophets that had existed on this continent." Moroni also taught Joseph “concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country.” “[T]he history of ancient America” unfolds in the text, and “America in ancient times was inhabited by two distinct races of people,” with the “remnant” constituting “the Indians that now inhabit this country.”

Debates have ensued about what Joseph meant by "continent" and "this country." When we realize that Joseph Smith resided in Nauvoo, Illinois, and Mr. Wentworth resided in Chicago, Illinois, the plain meaning of "this country" would be the United States (or, possibly, the "countryside" the two parties shared). There is nothing in the letter or context that would suggest Joseph used the term "country" to refer to Central or South America. The term "continent" is presumably more expansive, and could refer to the entire hemisphere (North, Central and South America) or just North America. A variety of terms are used in the Times and Seasons, for example, including the “Continent of Europe,” the “Oriental Continent,” and the “Continent of America.” The last reference is in an epistle of the Twelve “to the brethren scattered abroad on the Continent of America,” all of whom were east of the Mississippi. For whatever reason, Joseph left the terms vague here. They are susceptible to multiple interpretations.

Summary: Brother Hedges concludes, "The documents cited above, all of which were associated with Joseph’s name in one way or another, were simply conveying the idea that the events in the Book of Mormon took place somewhere in the New World, and that the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples were still around." That's a fair statement, although I interpret the terms "this country" and "our western tribes of Indians" to be more specific than he does.

End of Part 1

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The room in Cumorah-Brigham Young

When he wrote Letter VII and the other letters, Oliver Cowdery mentioned that he was relying on original documents in his possession. We don't know what documents he was referring to. Perhaps they were journal entries or notes that have since gone missing. 

Brigham Young once spoke about "an incident in the life of Oliver Cowdery" that was not documented in any writing we have from Oliver. (There are other accounts of this incident that I'll post, but I want to start with Brigham Young.)

This following passage is from a discourse by Brigham Young, delivered June 17, 1877, during a conference at Farmington, Utah. It is recorded in the Journal of Discourses, vol. 19, pp. 36-45, online here.


I lived right in the country where the plates were found from which the Book of Mormon was translated, and I know a great many things pertaining to that country. I believe I will take the liberty to tell you of another circumstance that will be as marvelous as anything can be. This is an incident in the life of Oliver Cowdery, but he did not take the liberty of telling such things in meeting as I take. 

I tell these things to you, and I have a motive for doing so. I want to carry them to the ears of my brethren and sisters, and to the children also, that they may grow to an understanding of some things that seem to be entirely hidden from the human family. 

Oliver Cowdery went with the Prophet Joseph when he deposited these plates. Joseph did not translate all of the plates; there was a portion of them sealed, which you can learn from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. 

Oliver says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room. He says he did not think, at the time, whether they had the light of the sun or artificial light; but that it was just as light as day. They laid the plates on a table; it
was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. 

The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: “This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ.” 

I tell you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others who were familiar with it, and who understood it just as well as we understand coming to this meeting, enjoying the day, and by and by we separate and go away, forgetting most of what is said, but remembering some things. So is it with other circumstances in life. 

I relate this to you, and I want you to understand it. I take this liberty of referring to those things so that they will not be forgotten and lost. Carlos Smith was a young man of as much veracity as any young man we had, and he was a witness to these things. Samuel Smith saw some things, Hyrum saw a good many things, but Joseph was the leader.

Now, you may think I am unwise in publicly telling these things, thinking perhaps I should preserve them in my own breast; but such is not my mind. I would like the people called Latter-day Saints to understand some little things with regard to the workings and dealings of the Lord with his people here upon the earth. I could relate to you a great many more, all of which are familiar to many of our brethren and sisters.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Decision Tree Analysis

One way to think about Book of Mormon geography is a series of decisions. Decision tree analysis lets people see their choices, and the consequences of their choices.

Start with the Hill Cumorah (the one described in the text, where the Jaredites and Nephites fought their final battles).

Oliver Cowdery's eight letters to W.W. Phelps contained the first detailed descriptions of many early Church history events, including the discussion of the Hill Cumorah in Letter VII. Oliver introduced the letters with this statement in the October 1834 Messenger and Advocate, which is online here:

"That our narrative may be correct, and particularly the introduction, it is proper to inform our patrons, that our brother J. SMITH jr. has offered to assist us. Indeed, there are many items connected with the fore part of this subject that render his labor indispensable. With his labor and with authentic documents now in our possession, we hope to render this a pleasing and agreeable narrative, well worth the examination and perusal of the Saints.-To do justice to this subject will require time and space: we therefore ask the forbearance of our readers, assuring them that it shall be founded upon facts."

Letter VII starts on p. 159, which is online here. If you believe what Oliver Cowdery wrote in Letter VII, then you think the Hill Cumorah is in New York. If you don't believe Letter VII, then you think the Hill Cumorah is elsewhere.

It's a simple choice.

The way you proceed through a decision tree makes a difference. Some people decide that the Hill Cumorah is not in New York before they even consider Letter VII. When they read Letter VII, they immediately realize that Letter VII contradicts their belief. They are faced with a decision: do I stick with my beliefs about the Hill Cumorah and reject Letter VII, or do I accept Letter VII and change my beliefs about the Hill Cumorah?

Others read Letter VII first and decide whether to accept or reject it. Then they move on from there.

I think the second approach makes more sense; i.e., ask what Oliver (and Joseph) said about the topic, and decide whether to reject or accept what they said. After all, they were the ones who translated the text. Together, they interacted with Moroni, John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John, Elijah, Elias and the Lord Himself. Oliver wrote Letter VII, but Joseph endorsed it fully. In fact, he wrote Oliver a brief letter in response to the first of the letters to clarify a few points about his "life and character." Oliver published the letter in the Messenger and Advocate. Joseph was free to comment on the other letters, but he never did. Instead, he had his scribe copy them into his journal as part of his story.

No one says you have to accept or reject Letter VII. We all make up our own minds, based on the evidence. But the decision tree analysis lets us clearly see the decisions we make.


Whether you accept or reject Letter VII, you can next consider David Whitmer's statement that he heard about Cumorah from a heavenly messenger before the translation of the Book of Mormon was even completed. If you believe him, you think the Hill Cumorah is in New York. If you don't believe him, then you think it is elsewhere.

You can proceed in this fashion through all the different Church history statements, the text itself, and the various applicable sciences.

[cross-posted here.]

Friday, June 10, 2016

Historical documents and narratives

For the rest of June, I'm going to revisit the historical documents that have contributed to the resistance against accepting Letter VII and the New York Cumorah.

To keep this blog focused on Letter VII and Cumorah, I will post the historical material on my blog titled LDS Historical Narratives. (That way, historians don't have to look at Book of Mormon geography issues, and geography people don't have to read historical material.)

Today, for example, I posted about the Bernhisel letter. You can see that post here.

November 1841 thank-you note
to Dr. John Bernhisel
A quick summary: Dr. Bernhisel was a Church leader who lived in New York. He gave a copy of Stephens' books about Central America to Wilford Woodruff to take to Nauvoo as a gift for Joseph Smith. In November, someone wrote a note thanking Bernhisel for the gift, with the observation that the Stephens book "unfolds & developes [sic] many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of The Book of Mormon."

No one knows who wrote the letter because the handwriting has never been identified. And, obviously, the note says nothing about Book of Mormon geography. All the archaeology in the Americas "corresponds with and supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon" because the Book of Mormon people eventually spread throughout the hemisphere by migrating and intermarrying with indigenous people. (Plus, although he focuses primarily on Central America, Stephens also discusses North American antiquities in his books.) Nevertheless, this brief note has been attributed to Joseph Smith and used to claim he "greeted" the Stephens books "enthusiastically."

In reality, there is not a single piece of evidence directly attributable to Joseph Smith that shows he ever saw the Stephens books, let alone read or wrote about them. Yet this letter and other anonymous writings have led to a historical narrative that Joseph Smith connected the Book of Mormon to Central America. That narrative, in my opinion, cannot be supported by the historical record without making a series of assumptions and inferences (i.e., a violation of Occam's razor).


My conclusion, after studying everything I could find on the topic of pre-1844 Church documents, boils down to two very simple observations.

1. Everything directly attributable to Joseph Smith supports and corroborates Letter VII.

2. Everything that contradicts Letter VII cannot be directly attributed to Joseph Smith.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

This is the Place

In Salt Lake City, there is a monument to the first Saints who entered the valley. The monument depicts Mormon pioneers from 1847, including the preliminary explorers, the main company, and the rear group, as well as the Donner party, fur trappers, and Spanish explorers. It's a wonderful memorial. Everyone who visits Salt Lake City should take the time to visit.

The monument is located at the This Is the Place Heritage Park. I'm familiar with the park because years ago I worked for the company that redid the landscaping. I laid out the walkways that you see now.

On the top of the obelisk, statues of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball and Wilford Woodruff look out over the valley.


What I'd like to propose is another This Is the Place Heritage Park. This one would be in New York.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Joseph's final word on Book of Mormon geography

Joseph Smith didn't say much about Book of Mormon geography, but he said enough to make it clear and simple. 

Letter VII was his last word on the subject. 

Letter VII was explicit and unambiguous: the New York hill where Joseph obtained the plates was the hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon. The mile-wide valley to the west of the hill was the location of the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites took place. No one who reads Letter VII can be mistaken about this. There is no room for confusion about this point. 

Why would Joseph have to say anything more on the topic?

The geography issue is more straightforward than people think. Letter VII is by far the most specific and declarative statement about Book of Mormon geography in existence. Although it was written by Oliver Cowdery, Joseph helped write it and explicitly endorsed it multiple times. 

Everything directly attributable to Joseph Smith is consistent with Letter VII and the North American geography. Everything that contradicts Letter VII and the North American geography is not directly attributable to Joseph Smith. 

Another way to say it: Those who think Joseph didn't know where the Book of Mormon took place rely on statements that can't be directly attributed to him.

I'll address objections to Letter VII in a separate post. Here, I want to point out that after Letter VII, Joseph wrote or said only three known things about the geography question, all of which are consistent with Letter VII. These are the Matthews interview, the Wentworth letter, and D&C 128.

People often ask me what Joseph said about Book of Mormon geography. In the next section is a helpful list from FairMormon, with my comments in red. Like most such lists, this one ignores Letter VII but includes the anonymous articles from the Times and Seasons. 

This common practice is difficult to justify historically. Joseph explicitly helped to write the Cowdery letters, including Letter VII. He had them copied into his journal and gave explicit permission to others to reprint them. 

By contrast, there is zero historical evidence that Joseph had anything to do with the anonymous Times and Seasons articles, and he never endorsed them explicitly or implicitly. The only link to him is the boilerplate at the end of the Times and Seasons listing Joseph as the editor, publisher and printer of the newspaper. To say this constitutes evidence that Joseph actually edited the paper would also constitute evidence that he physically printed the paper, a proposition no one takes seriously.

Based on historical evidence, Letter VII is much more Joseph's than the anonymous Times and Seasons articles. Plus, Letter VII is consistent with everything else Joseph said or wrote on the topic, while the anonymous Times and Seasons articles contradict everything else Joseph said or wrote on the topic.

Now, let's look at the list.

From FairMormon:
The page lists statements related to Book of Mormon geography that are attributed to Joseph Smith.

2 Feb 1833: American Revivalist

The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western tribes of Indians… By it, we learn that our western tribes of Indians, are descendants from that Joseph that was sold into Egypt, and that the land of America is a promised land unto them.[1]

3 June 1834: (Zion's Camp) The story of Zelph

Main article: Zelph [During Zion's Camp, Joseph and some of the brethren climbed a mound in Illinois and began digging. At some point, Joseph had a vision of the man whose bones they found. Several witnesses wrote about the event, each describing different details, but essentially Zelph was a Lamanite killed in the final battles. He (or his military general Onandagus) was known from the Rocky Mountains to the East Sea or Cumorah. These are both Book of Mormon locations, near one another, in North America.]

4 June 1834: (Zion's Camp) Joseph Smith believes that Illinois is the "plains of the Nephites" [Zion's Camp had crossed Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to reach the banks of the Mississippi River, where Joseph wrote this letter. Emma was presumably familiar with the Book of Mormon, having served as a scribe for part of the translation and having been present during most of the translation.]

The following is taken from a letter written by Joseph Smith to his wife Emma during the trek known as "Zion's Camp".
The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest and sincere men, 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 & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity, and gazing upon a country the fertility, the splendour and the goodness so indescribable, all serves to pass away time unnoticed.[2]

November 1835: Journal account regarding Moroni's first visits

He told me of a sacred record which was written on plates of gold, I saw in the vision the place where they were deposited, he said the indians were the literal descendants of Abraham he explained many things of the prophesies to me[3]
[This account was not written by Joseph Smith. It originated as a conversation with Robert Matthews in 9-11 November 1835, recorded by Warren Parrish in Journal, 1835-1836 here. and by Warren Cowdery here. Joseph related the events to Matthews after Letter VII was published.]

July 19, 1840: Joseph teaches that the Land of Zion consists of North and South America

...speaking of the Land of Zion, It consists of all N[orth] & S[outh] America but that any place where the Saints gather is Zion which every righteous man will build up for a place of safety for his children...The redemption of Zion is the redemption of all N[orth] & S[outh] America." (emphasis added)[4]
[This account was the first sermon recorded by 19-year-old Martha Jane Knowlton Coray. It is the subject of a separate blog post, but when read in context, Joseph most likely was referring to North and South America meaning North and South United States, not the continents. It has been misconstrued ever since.] 

16 November 1841: Joseph dictates the Bernhisel letter

John Bernhisel joined the LDS Church in 1837 while practicing medicine in New York City. In 1841 he was ordained bishop of the congregation in New York City. Bernhisel was a well-educated man, and in 1841 read Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan by John L. Stephens.
Impressed by the book, Bernhisel gave the two-volume work to Wilford Woodruff in September 1841 with instructions to make sure it was given to Joseph Smith. Woodruff, who was on his way back from England to Nauvoo, delivered the book, as requested.
It would appear that Joseph appreciated receiving the book, as he wrote a letter to Bernhisel acknowledging the gift. [This statement is false. No one knows who wrote this letter; the handwriting remains unidentified. There is no evidence that Joseph dictated this letter or even knew about it. I've written a detailed analysis of the historical evidence, which shows that by far the most likely source of the letter is Wilford Woodruff.] 

Dated November 16, 1841, the first paragraph of the letter is as follows:
I received your kind present by the hand of Er Woodruff & feel myself under many obligations for this mark of your esteem & friendship which to me is the more interesting as it unfolds & developes many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon; I have read the volumes with the greatest interest & pleasure & must say that of all histories that have been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country it is the most correct luminous & comprihensive.[5]

1 March 1842: Wentworth letter

I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people was made known unto me: I was also told where there was deposited some plates on which were engraven an abridgement [abridgment] of the records of the ancient prophets that had existed on this continent....
The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country. This book also tells us that our Saviour [Savior] made his appearance upon this continent after his resurrection, that he planted the gospel here in all its fulness [fullness], and richness, and power, and blessing; that they had apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers and evangelists; the same order, the same priesthood, the same ordinances, gifts, powers, and blessing, as was enjoyed on the eastern continent, that the people were cut off in consequence of their transgressions…[6]

[An important part of this letter that people forget (or ignore) is that it was adapted from Orson Pratt's 1840 pamphlet "A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions." Pratt quoted from Letter VII, but he also spent several pages describing the Central/South American theory of geography. Joseph deleted all of that when he wrote the Wentworth letter, a clear repudiation of that geography theory. Instead, Joseph specified that the remnant of the Nephite/Lamanite nation are the Indians that inhabited the United States in 1842.]

15 July 1842: Joseph Smith discusses high civilization in the Americas, uses mound-builders and Guatemalan ruins as an example [That sentence is false. Nothing in this editorial states or implies Joseph wrote it. It is signed "Ed." for Editor; it is not signed by Joseph Smith. There is no evidence that Joseph wrote, edited, or even saw this article before or after it was published. He and Oliver Cowdery had unequivocally identified the location of the Hill Cumorah. Why Joseph let others speculate about the rest is the topic of a separate post, but he never varied from Letter VII.]

NOTE: Page 862 of this issue of the Times and Seasons states: "The Times and Seasons, Is edited, printed and published about the first and fifteenth of every month, on the corner of Water and Bain Streets, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, by JOSEPH SMITH"
If men, in their researches into the history of this country, in noticing the mounds, fortifications, statues, architecture, implements of war, of husbandry, and ornaments of silver, brass, &c.-were to examine the Book of Mormon, their conjectures would be removed, and their opinions altered; uncertainty and doubt would be changed into certainty and facts; and they would find that those things that they are anxiously prying into were matters of history, unfolded in that book. They would find their conjectures were more than realized-that a great and a mighty people had inhabited this continent-that the arts sciences and religion, had prevailed to a very great extent, and that there was as great and mighty cities on this continent as on the continent of Asia. Babylon, Ninevah, nor any of the ruins of the Levant could boast of more perfect sculpture, better architectural designs, and more imperishable ruins, than what are found on this continent. Stephens and Catherwood's researches in Central America abundantly testify of this thing. The stupendous ruins, the elegant sculpture, and the magnificence of the ruins of Guatamala [Guatemala], and other cities, corroborate this statement, and show that a great and mighty people-men of great minds, clear intellect, bright genius, and comprehensive designs inhabited this continent. Their ruins speak of their greatness; the Book of Mormen [Mormon] unfolds their history.-ED.[7]
This statement was signed "ED," which attributes it directly to Joseph Smith. [

15 Sept. 1842: Speculation that Palenque is a Nephite city

NOTE: Page 926 of this issue of the Times and Seasons states: "The Times and Seasons, Is edited, printed and published about the first fifteenth of every month, on the corner of Water and Bain Streets, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, by JOSEPH SMITH."
Although Joseph Smith is listed as the editor at this time, opinions vary on whether it may have actually been either John Taylor or Wilford Woodruff who wrote this unsigned article.[8] [9] [The historical evidence points to none of those three, but instead to William Smith, W.W. Phelps, and Benjamin Winchester.] John Taylor later became the editor of Times and Seasons. Regardless of whether it was Joseph Smith, Wilford Woodruff, or John Taylor who wrote this article, its publication occurred prior to the death of Joseph Smith. The subject being discussed is a very popular book by John L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, which Joseph Smith read and enjoyed:
Mr. Stephens' great developments of antiquities are made bare to the eyes of all the people by reading the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. They lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found. Read the destruction of cities at the crucifixion of Christ...Let us turn our subject, however, to the Book of Mormon, where these wonderful ruins of Palenque are among the mighty works of the Nephites:—and the mystery is solved...Mr. Stephens' great developments of antiquities are made bare to the eyes of all the people by reading the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. They lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found. Read the destruction of cities at the crucifixion of Christ, pages 459-60. Who could have dreamed that twelve years would have developed such incontrovertible testimony to the Book of Mormon? (emphasis added)<ref?John Taylor (editor), "Extract from Stephens' 'Incidents of Travel in Central America'," Times and Seasons 3 no. 22 (15 September 1842), 915. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)

1 Oct. 1842: Zarahemla "stood upon this land" of Central America

NOTE: Page 942 of this issue of the Times and Seasons states: "The Times and Seasons, Is edited, printed and published about the first fifteenth of every month, on the corner of Water and Bain Streets, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, by JOSEPH SMITH." [The historical evidence points not to Joseph Smith, but instead to William Smith, W.W. Phelps, and Benjamin Winchester. Notice, too, that this same issue contains the letter that became D&C 128, with its reference to Cumorah, Moroni's visit, the Three Witnesses, and other events that took place in New York and Pennsylvania. People forget this letter was written in the context of Letter VII, which had been reprinted in the Times and Seasons just a year earlier and would be reprinted in England in 1844 to satisfy the demand for more copies.]
[W]e have found another important fact relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon. Central America, or Guatimala [Guatemala], is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien and once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south.-The city of Zarahemla, burnt at the crucifixion of the Savior, and rebuilt afterwards, stood upon this land as will be seen from the following words in the book of Alma...It is certainly a good thing for the excellency and veracity, of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, that the ruins of Zarahemla have been found where the Nephites left them: and that a large stone with engravings upon it as Mosiah said; and a 'large round stone, with the sides sculptured in hieroglyphics,' as Mr. Stephens has published, is also among the left remembrances of the, (to him,) lost and unknown. We are not going to declare positively that the ruins of Quirigua are those of Zarahemla, but when the land and the stones, and the books tell the story so plain, we are of opinion, that it would require more proof than the Jews could bring to prove the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb, to prove that the ruins of the city in question, are not one of those referred to in the Book of Mormon...It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens' ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon: light cleaves to light, and facts are supported by facts.(emphasis added)[citation needed]


  1. Jump up Joseph Smith, “Mormonism,” The American Revivalist and Rochester Observer 7/6 (February 2, 1833). Only the last two paragraphs of Joseph’s letter to the newspaper were printed. The entire letter appeared eleven years later in the November 15, 1844 issue of the Times and Seasons.
  2. Jump up Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, [original edition] (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1984). ISBN 0877479747GL direct link
  3. Jump up JS Journal, Nov 1835 [citation needed]
  4. Jump up Martha Jane Knowlton Coray, [edited by Dean C. Jessee], "Joseph Smith's July 19, 1840 Discourse," Brigham Young University Studies 19 no. 3 (Spring 1979), 392.
  5. Jump up Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 533.
  6. Jump up Joseph Smith, "Church History," Times and Seasons 3 no. 9 (1 March 1842), 707. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.). See also History of the Church, 4:535–541. Volume 4 link
  7. Jump up Joseph Smith (editor), "American Antiquities," Times and Seasons 3 no. 18 (15 July 1842), 860. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  8. Jump up Kenneth W. Godfrey, "What is the Significance of Zelph In The Study Of Book of Mormon Geography?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): 70–79. off-site wiki Godfrey believes that the author was either John Taylor or Wilford Woodruff.
  9. Jump up John E. Clark, "Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/2 (2005): 38–49. off-site wiki Clark believes that the author was Joseph Smith.