May 29, 2005

Hill Cumorah

Every religion has its apologists, but few are capable of moving, if not a mountain, at least a drumlin. But such is the case with some Mormon apologists.

At the outset, I should probably note that I don't have any particular brief against Mormons, nor do I necessarily think that it's much of a drawback for a religion to be based on what appear to be fictional premises (that the inhabitants of the New World were of Semitic origin; that they were preceded here by a people called the Jaredites who came from the tower of Babel). Or, to put this in a way that may be easier to swallow, God need not worry about fact checkers when revealing his purpose to man; religious texts have meanings that go far beyond mere historical anecdote.

As someone who's studied a (small) bit of New World archaeology, I think it's fair to say that the text Joseph Smith published makes numerous errors -- the most telling, perhaps, being his work's references to horses, metal weapons, wheeled carts and chariots, and other animals and devices unknown in the New World until the landing of Columbus. And, of course, all evidence indicate that the New World's inhabitants most likely did not travel by boat from the Holy Land to the New World, but rather crossed a land bridge over the Bering Strait.

Because the archaeological record is so at odds with Mormon history, apologists have offered a revised interpretation of Mormon geography:

For at least fifty years (and in some quarters substantially longer), serious students of the Book of Mormon have read that book in light of a different model. Under this model, Lehi and family represented a limited incursion into an extensive population that already existed in the Americas, and their sphere of operations was limited to Mesoamerica, ranging in the hundreds of miles, not thousands. For simplicity, I shall refer to this as the "limited geography" model. The limited geography model arose based on various factors (including scientific considerations), not the least of which was a careful reading of the text of the Book of Mormon itself, on its own terms, rather than relying on traditional mythology about that text.

The difficulty with the limited geography model, however, is that Joseph Smith himself contradicted it. As Fawn Brodie relates in No Man Knows My History, Smith certainly believed in an unlimited New Geography for the Book of Mormon:

Stopping near an Indian mound on the Illinois River, he excavated a skeleton from near its surface and said to his companions: "This man in mortal life was a white Lamanite, a large, thick-set man, and a man of God. His name was Zelf. He was a a warrior and chieftan under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the eastern sea to the Rocky Mountains. The curse of the red skin was taken from him, or, at least, in part." Lifting the thigh bone, which had been broken, and pointing to an arrowhead still lodged between two ribs, he described in vivid detail the great battle in which Zelf had been killed. Brigham Young eagerly siezed the arrowhead, and others carried off the leg and thigh bones for souvenirs.

Smith wasn't alone in this interpretation. Oliver Cowdery, one of three witnesses who signed a statement saying that they had seen the original plates of the Book of Mormon which were hidden in Hill Cumorah, as well as an angel of the Lord, wrote in a letter in July 1835:

By turning to the 529th and 530th pages of the book of Mormon you will read Mormon's account of the last great struggle of his people, as they were encamped round this hill Cumorah. [It is printed Camorah, which is an error.] In this valley fell the remaining strength and pride of a once powerful people, the Nephites—once so highly favored of the Lord, but at that time in darkness, doomed to suffer extermination by the hand of their barbarous and uncivilized brethren. From the top of this hill, Mormon, with a few others, after the battle, gazed with horror upon the mangled remains of those who, the day before, were filled with anxiety, hope, or doubt. A few had fled to the South, who were hunted down by the victorious party, and all who would not deny the Savior and his religion, were put to death. Mormon himself, according to the record of his son Moroni, was also slain.

But a long time previous to this national disaster it appears from his own account, he foresaw approaching destruction. In fact, if he perused the records of his fathers, which were in his possession, he could have learned that such would be the case. Alma, who lived before the coming of the Messiah, prophesies this. He however, by divine appointment, abridged from those records, in his own style and language, a short account of the more important and prominent items, from the days of Lehi to his own time, after which he deposited, as he says, on the 529th page, all the records in this same hill, Cumorah, and after gave his small record to his son Moroni, who, as appears from the same, finished, after witnessing the extinction of his people as a nation.

These were the records Joseph Smith said he was guided to in the 1820s by the angel Moroni when he lived in Palmyra in upstate New York. Under the limited geography theory, Hill Cumorah, the site of that battle, would have to be somewhere in Central America, something that the Church of Latter Day Saints hierarchy had noted some time ago:

In 1954 Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith rejected a limited geography thesis: "Within recent years there has arisen among certain students fo the Book of Mormon a theory to the effect that within the period covered by the Book of Mormon, the Nephites and Lamanites were confined almost with the borders of the territory comprising Central America and the southern portion of Mexico; the Isthmus of Tehuantepec probably being the 'narrow neck' of land spoken of in the Book of Mormon rather than the Isthmus of Panama...This modernistic theory of necessity, in order to be consistent, must place the waters of Ripliancum and the Hill Cumorah someplace in the restricted territory of Central America, notwithstanding the teachings of the Church to the contrary for upwards of 100 years."

(Quoted in footnote 21 to George D. Smith's essay in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon.)

Posted by Ideofact at May 29, 2005 11:02 PM