Book of Mormon geography articles signed by Joseph Smith

By W. Vincent Coon
 

 

    Nauvoo newspaper articles signed by Joseph Smith, place Book of Mormon events in his own country. In the fall of 1841, Joseph Smith dictated a letter of thanks to physician John M. Bernhisel for the gift of a two volume book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, by John Lloyd Stephens. The letter was written in the handwriting of John Taylor and signed in Joseph’s name. What does the letter actually tell us about Joseph Smith’s understanding of Book of Mormon lands?
     In the Bernhisel letter, Joseph praises Stephens’ book, saying that it “corresponds with and supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon;” Joseph then adds, “I have read the volumes with the greatest interest and pleasure and must say that of all histories that have been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country it is the most correct luminous and comprehensive.” [1] You will notice that Joseph mentions antiquities of his own country. Stephens’ best seller mostly describes incidents of travel in Central America, hut the bestseller does shine a light on the history and “antiquities of this country” - the United States of America. According to Stephens:

     “ . . . a new flood of light has poured upon the world, and the field of American antiquities has been opened.”
     “ . . . In our own country, the opening of forests and the discovery of tumuli or mounds and fortifications, extending in ranges from the lakes through the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi, mummies in a cave in Kentucky, the inscription on the rock at Dighton . . . the ruins of walls and a great city in Arkansas and Wisconsin Territory, had suggested.. the strong belief that powerful and populous nations had occupied it and had passed away, whose histories are entirely unknown. The same evidences continue in Texas. and in Mexico they assume a still more definite form.” [2]

    Joseph says he read Stephens’ volumes “with the greatest interest”. It is unlikely then, that Joseph missed Stephens’ conclusion that the ruins which he and artist Frederick Catherwood documented, were relatively recent - not of great antiquity. Stephens devoted an entire chapter to this point. [3] Further research has vindicated Stephens’ assessment on the age of those spectacular Mesoamerican ruins.
    The Prophet had made several powerful, even scriptural statements placing Book of Mormon peoples and events in lands now occupied by the United States. Did Stephens’ bestseller change Joseph’s mind about the setting for the Book of Mormon?
     It is evident, from Joseph Smith’s July 15, 1842 “AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES” article, published in the Times and Seasons newspaper, that Stephens’ writings only served to confirm the Prophet’s conviction that Book of Mormon events took place in his own country.
     Editorials fully endorsed by Joseph Smith in the Times and Seasons are readily identified by his “ED”. Joseph Smith’s signed articles discuss in greater detail, discoveries in the American backyard, as summarized in Stephens’ book: mounds, fortifications, mummies, ruins of walls, and the remains of earth and timber cities.
     In one of several 1842 editorials on Josiah Priest’s American Antiquities, Joseph Smith places the arrival of the Jaredites in “the lake country of America” (region of Lake Ontario). [4][5] All of the articles pertaining to Book of Mormon setting signed by Joseph Smith, are consistent with the view that Book of Mormon peoples or their descendants, migrated from mound builder territory to places as far south as Mexico and Central America. None of Joseph’s signed articles explicitly place Book of Mormon lands in Central or South America.
     In the fall of 1842, Joseph Smith found it necessary to go into hiding. (D&C 127). Church History scholars agree that even though Joseph Smith retained the official title of newspaper editor, he was probably not the acting editor during this episode. [6] It was during Joseph Smith’s public absence that several newspaper articles emerged, doting on Stephens’ bestseller. These conflicting, exuberant pieces place Book of Mormon sites in Central and South America. The use of “we” and “us” in the commentaries may indicate that the articles were the work of more than one person.
     The first of these unsigned articles is titled, EXTRACT from Stephens’ “Incidents of Travel in Central America.” [7] The commentary asserts that all of Central America is the Book of Mormon’s narrow neck of land. The article further alleges that the mysterious and wonderful ruins of Palenque discovered by Stephens “are among the mighty works of the Nephites”. Subsequent research has shown these ruins to be more recent than Book of Mormon times.
     On the heel of the EXTRACT article came the “FACTS ARE STUBBORN THINGS” article. [8] Joseph Smith is mentioned in the third person in this piece. This article asserts that Lehi “landed a little south of the Isthmus of Darien”. This notion does not fit with the final unsigned article which anachronistically ties Zarahemla or some other Book of Mormon city, to the Central American ruins at Quirigua. These ruins are many hundreds of miles northwest of Panama. It seems absurd to think that elderly Lehi and Sariah landed a little south of Panama and then trudged over 1,500 miles. packing their belongings through mosquito infested jungles, to finally inherit a southern coast of Guatemala.
     The final unsigned article titled “ZARAHEMLA”. [9] blunders in attributing to Mosiah, words written by Amaleki in the Book of Mormon. The article implies that because a large stone with hieroglyphics on it was found by Stephens at Quirigua, that this has something to do with the large engraved stone presented to Mosiah. (Omni 1:20) The article mentions the “small neck of land”, but strangely, the only isthmus named in the article is the isthmus at Panama which cannot be the “small neck” if Zarahemla is supposed to be northwest of it. It is as if the writers of the article confused the narrow strip of wilderness” south of Zarahemla for the narrow neck of land. (Alma 22:27, 32).
     There is no indication that these conflicting unsigned articles were intended to be anything more than provocative and interesting press of the day. They are certainly not canonical. By contrast, an epistle to the Church from the Prophet in hiding was published in the same issue as the unsigned “ZARAHEMLA” piece. The epistle, bearing the Prophet’s signature, is declared by him to be “the word of the Lord” (D&C 127:10), and has been canonized as D&C 128. It is this section of LDS scripture, incidentally, which places the land Cumorah in the Finger Lakes region of western New York. (D&C 128:20) There is no reference to any of the dubious unsigned articles in Joseph Smith’s journal. His epistle to the Church, which mentions Cumorah, is recorded there.
     Joseph Smith’s endorsement of the conflicting articles is less definite than the published works which bear his signature or “ED”. It is not at all surprising to find Joseph Smith’s terminology and expressions used in the unsigned articles. It is entirely possible that the unsigned articles were a collaborative effort, not unlike Wikipedia. The editing of a single word by a second contributor can change the direction, tone and meaning of a sentence, while preserving word-length. Who edited what, and the extent to which Joseph endorsed all the contents is unknown.
     The unsigned newspaper articles have not proven very authoritative in scholarly efforts to ascertain the Book of Mormon’s original setting. A more fruitful approach involving statistical analysis would be to compare components of the literary setting of the Book of Mormon directly to other works such as the Bible, Incidents of Travel in Central America and American literature from the 19tt Century “Mound-Builder” genre. Hebrew Scriptures and Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America contain references to monkeys and palm trees. The Book of Mormon does not. Why is that, and how significant is it? Literature treating North America’s mysterious mound builders describe ancient encounters with horses and mastodons. Hmmm, that’s curious! [10]

References:

[l]    The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, compiled and edited by Dean C. Jessee, S.L.C.,
       Deseret Book, 2002, pg. 533.

[2]    Stephens, John Lloyd, Incidents of Travel in Central America, pp. 97-98.

[3]    ibid, Vol. II, Chapter XXVI, “COMPARATIVE MODERN DATE OF RUINS”, pp. 442-443.

[4]   Priest, Josiah, American Antiquities. “Traits of the Mosaic History found among the Azteca
        Nations”, pg. 202.

[5]    “Traits of the Mosaic History Found Among the Aztaeca Nations”, Joseph Smith (editor), Times
        and Seasons
, June 15, 1842. Vol.3, No. 16, pp. 818-820.

[6]    Roper, Matthew, “Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and
        Early Interpretations”, section titled “John Taylor’s View”, BYU Maxwell Institute. 2004.

[7]    Times and Seasons, September 15, 1842, Vol. 3 No. 22, pp, 911-915.

[8]    ibid, September15, 1842. Vol.3, pp. 92l-922

[9]    ibid, October 1, 1842, Vol. 3, No. 23, pg. 927.

[I0]   Matthews. Cornelius, Behemoth: A Legend of the Mound-Builders. (1839).

About the Author:

The writer of this article is LD S and has an MS degree in Physics from the University of Utah. He has a Hebrew language background, having studied Hebrew in Israel at the Ulpan Akiva, and at the U of U. He works in the field of medical x-ray devices as an R&D engineer. He is trained in the methods of Six-Sigma and has performed statistical comparisons between the Bible and the Book of Mormon using Minitab software. He is the author of the book Choice Above All Other Lands, Book of Mormon Covenant Lands According to the Best Sources and has done considerable research on Times and Seasons articles relating to Book of Mormon geography.


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