Statement on Book of Mormon Geography
The question of precisely where the events chronicled in the Book of
Mormon took place arises naturally since to date neither the record
itself nor the Lord through his prophets has revealed its New World
setting in terms that permit conclusive linkages to modern-day
locales. Historically, Latter-day Saint speculation on the subject has
spawned several possible correlations between the geography of the
Americas and the geographic clues discoverable in the Book of Mormon.
Two such interpretations have predominated: the hemispheric model
(with Book of Mormon lands encompassing North, Central, and South
America) and the limited geography model (a restricted New World
setting on the order of hundreds rather than thousands of miles).
The earliest and best-known proponent of the hemispheric model was
Orson Pratt, who espoused it as early as 18321 and continued to teach
it for decades. Throughout the nineteenth century, many Latter-day
Saint writers followed Pratt's model, and eventually his geographical
ideas were incorporated into the footnotes of the 1879 edition of the
Book of Mormon. The popularity of the hemispheric model
notwithstanding, it simply is not clear whether it was the result of
prophetic revelation or merely the outgrowth of the personal ideas and
assumptions of the Prophet Joseph Smith and other brethren. For this
reason, certain anecdotal statements attributed to Joseph Smith
regarding Lehi's landing in Chile2 and the identity of a deceased
"white Lamanite" warrior (whose skeletal remains were found by members
of Zion's Camp in western Illinois)3 are problematic and not
especially helpful in efforts to reconstruct an authoritative
geography for the Book of Mormon.
Neither Book of Mormon prophecies nor Joseph Smith's account of
Moroni's visit requires an all-inclusive hemispheric setting.4
Moreover, the diversity of nineteenth-century opinion, even among
church leaders, on key aspects of the hemispheric model is striking,
suggesting fluidity of thought in the absence of prophetic revelation
that could settle the issue. In the 1840s, the publication of John L.
Stephens's Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and
Yucatan=E2=80=94a best-selling book with fabulous illustrations of ruins in
Central America attesting a high level of civilization=E2=80=94brought a
measure of unity to the ongoing discussion by turning attention to
Mesoamerica as a plausible arena of Book of Mormon events.5 Yet there
were inevitable points of disagreement on crucial details, such as the
location of Lehi's landing, the lands of Nephi and Zarahemla, and the
narrow neck of land that connected two major blocks of territory. In
the ensuing decades, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints influenced ongoing discussion of the geographic
question by refusing to endorse any one interpretation, emphasizing
the doctrinal teachings of the Book of Mormon, encouraging more
thorough scripture study in order to better sort out geographic
details, and removing Orson Pratt's footnotes from the 1920 edition of
the Book of Mormon. The church clearly had no authoritative stance on
what was, and remains, an open issue.
Since the early twentieth century, many scholars and other serious
students of the Book of Mormon have come to favor the limited
geography model, with Mesoamerica (extending from southern Mexico to
Guatemala) as the Book of Mormon homeland and New York's Hill Cumorah
as the repository of Mormon's record but not the scene of the final
Nephite-Lamanite battles. Notwithstanding its various permutations
regarding real-world correlations, this interpretation, with
antecedents apparent in the 1840s, seems to best match the complex
requirements of the scriptural text itself while remaining tenable
after years of rigorous examination in light of the archaeological and
cultural record of ancient Mesoamerica.6 Interpretations of Book of
Mormon geography are obviously of lesser importance than the spiritual
and eternal messages of the scriptural record itself. Still, as in all
other fields of knowledge, such theories have their place; each must
be evaluated on its own merits, and for those who continue to humbly
and diligently seek truth, the promise is given that "my grace shall
attend you" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:78).
Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and
Early Interpretations, by Matthew Roper
A newspaper account of Mormon missionaries who preached in
Pennsylvania in 1832 mentions Orson Pratt in connection with this
teaching. See B. Stokely, "The Orators of Mormonism," Catholic
Telegraph (Cincinnati), 14 April 1832, a reprint from Mercer (PA) Free
This idea can be traced to two documents: a statement by Frederick G.
Williams, one of Joseph Smith's scribes in Kirtland, and a statement
by John M. Bernhisel, who visited Emma Smith in 1845. Neither source
attributes the idea to Joseph Smith, though Franklin D. Richards and
James A. Little assumed as much in their 1882 booklet A Compendium of
the Doctrines of the Gospel, which reproduces the statement along with
the heading "LEHI'S TRAVELS.=E2=80=94Revelation to Joseph the Seer."
Significantly, Orson Pratt, who often mentioned the site of Lehi's
landing in his writings, never attributed the idea of a Chilean
landing to Joseph Smith or to revelation. In fact, he once explained
that this view was actually based on his own inference from the Book
of Mormon text (see Journal of Discourses, 14:325).
For full discussion of the many versions of the Zelph incident, see
Kenneth W. Godfrey, "The Zelph Story," BYU Studies 29/2 (1989): 35=E2=80=93=
and Godfrey, "What Is the Significance of Zelph in the Study of Book
of Mormon Geography?" Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999):
For example, reference in Joseph Smith=E2=80=94History 1:34 to "the former
inhabitants of this continent" would not preclude a setting of
relatively small geographic scope within the Americas. In addition,
proponents of the limited geography model do not rule out migrations
of Book of Mormon peoples to parts of North America following the
close of the record.
The book intrigued Joseph Smith and was clearly influential in shaping
the geographic views of other prominent Latter-day Saints such as
Parley P. Pratt, John Taylor, John E. Page, Orson Pratt, and George Q.
For detailed treatments of the limited geography model, see John L.
Sorenson's An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt
Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1996) and Mormon's Map (Provo, UT:
FARMS, 2000). Sorenson was the first scholar to develop a plausible
synthesis between what the Book of Mormon says about the Nephites and
Lamanites and the body of scholarship on ancient America.