Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Porter and Meldrum, "Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States" (reviewed by Tim Ballard)


Title: Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States
Author: Bruce Porter and Rod Meldrum
Publisher: Digital Legend
Genre: Nonfiction
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 239
Binding: N/A
ISBN13: 978-1-934537-34-3

Reviewed by Tim Ballard for the Association for Mormon Letters

Last month I found myself traversing the impressive landscape of the Guatemalan countryside in a big black Suburban. I wish I could say I was there as a tourist. However, I had been sent by the United States government to investigate a heinous crime involving the kidnapping and trafficking of children. With my mind and soul weighed down by the situation, I peered out the window of the highly armored SUV. As the security driver zipped over yet another forest green mountaintop and passed through a small village, I spotted something that raised my spirits. Walking side by side were two Mormon missionaries with copies of the Book of Mormon in their hands. I immediately began reflecting on that powerful book and the ancient people and places whose story is told therein. As we began our journey that morning from the capital, we passed the ancient ruins of Kaminaljuyu—a popularly proposed site for Nephi's ancient temple. We had also driven near the beautiful banks of Lake Atitlan—the proposed site of the ancient Waters of Mormon. The reality of the ancient cascaded into my mind as I watched those Mormon elders with their copies of the Book of Mormon. My darkness turned to light as I took in the fact that I was in Book of Mormon lands.

As fate would have it, within weeks of my return from Mesoamerica, I was asked to review the book *Prophecies and Promises*—a work which would challenge my recent experience in Guatemala. In the book, the authors boldly assert that the Book of Mormon narrative did not occur in ancient Mesoamerica (as many assume), but within the borders of what is now the United States of America. They call their position the Heartland Theory. As I opened the book I realized I would make a perfect test-case for the authors' proposal; I had a personal and vested interest in a Mesoamerican theory. If they could convince me I was wrong, then I would conclude they had produced a powerful work indeed. I read the book. The result: an enlightened perspective and an expanded horizon.

The authors build their case upon a foundation of sound methodology. Instead of focusing solely on what limited geographic indicators exist in the Book of Mormon (like many theorists have done), they utilize a broader, more useful, set of sources. They go so far as to rank these sources by importance and credibility, beginning with prophetic evidence found in the scriptures and followed up by prophetic statements made by the Prophet Joseph Smith. They add depth to their case by showing how physical, geographic and scientific (DNA) evidence also supports the Heartland Theory.

The book was not written as a critique of other, more prominent theories. Nor does it feel like a defensive response to critics of the authors' theory. It simply provides evidence for its central argument. Some of the most compelling (even shocking) pieces of evidence include statements from the Prophet Joseph, in which he is reported to have said that "the last great struggle with the Lamanites and Nephites" occurred in what is now the United States. He also referred to lands of the United States as "the plains of the Nephites." Other recorded utterances from the Prophet imply a similar message. The authors explain how the Limited Geography Theory (which argues that the Book of Mormon narrative had to occur within relatively limited space), makes these statements by the Prophet especially relevant. Also compelling is the rich and detailed DNA analysis, which powerfully connects the blood of Native Americans in the Great Lakes Region to Europeans and Israelites.

If I have one critique for the book it would be the authors' failure to consider other equally logical interpretations of certain scriptural passages they cite. For example, the authors assert that the Book of Mormon's use of the demonstrative "this"—as in the Prophet Lehi's description of the Promised Land as "*this* land"—represents conclusive evidence of the Heartland Theory. Through several chapters, the authors convincingly detail how the United States of America is the latter-day land of promise prophesied over by the Prophet Lehi and others. The reason Lehi called this future Promised Land of the Restoration "this land," was to point out that he was standing precisely upon it. He was distinguishing *this* land from *other* lands (e.g. Mesoamerica) in the New World. If Lehi meant for the Promised Land to include places beyond where he was standing, he would have said *the* land or *that* land—not *this* land. Therefore, if the United States of America truly is the modern-day Promised Land (which it has proven to be) then Lehi and his people must have been residing within what was to become her borders. To interpret the phrase "this land" any other way, according to the authors, would be "to force an interpretation"(p.213).

I was surprised at the level of emphasis placed on such a myopic interpretation, as there is an alternative interpretation that is very obvious and natural. It seems just as likely (or more likely) that Lehi and other prophets referred to "this land" without a defined sense of modern-day geographical boundaries. All they knew was that they had discovered a New World unknown to the Old World. Therefore, if they stood in what is now Guatemala and described the future promised nation-state as pertaining to "this land," it is completely reasonable to assume they meant that this future nation-state of promise would emerge somewhere (anywhere) upon *this* newly discovered  New World. "This land" may have simply implied a land that was not *that* land of their fathers from whence they had come. In this light, the United States of America would be included as part of "this land," even in a Mesoamerican setting. In addition, the prophecies of Christopher Columbus in the Book of Mormon imply that he would also come to the Promised Land. He landed in the Caribbean. Other latter-day explorers found what would be the United States long before Columbus saw it.

The authors' interpretation requires us to believe that Book of Mormon prophets foresaw future, national borders.  However, the scriptures give no indication of such knowledge. The only borders and boundaries we know for sure that Lehi understood were those between the Old World and the New World. Therefore, it is very natural—not at all "forced"—to assume that his use of the word *this* was to make this single distinction. I harp upon this point only because this is a central theme throughout the book. The authors place the "this land" argument in the beginning as scriptural (even preeminent) evidence, and then refer to it throughout the rest of the book as scripturally conclusive. Yet it is not scripturally conclusive. I wish they had at least mentioned the other obvious alternative interpretation.

Similarly, the authors insist that when the Angel Moroni told Joseph that Book of Mormon inhabitants resided upon "this continent," and when Joseph stated that Christ appeared on "this continent," that it was proof positive that all these things had occurred in what is now the United States (p.212). However, while maintaining their conclusion, the authors also admit that the word "continent," even in Joseph's day, included North America *and* Central America(p.100)—it included Mesoamerica! In fact, one of the authors' references quotes Joseph in the Wentworth letter stating that "the remnant [of Book of Mormon civilizations] are the Indians that now inhabit *this country*…[and that] "Christ made his appearance upon *this continent* (pp. 99-100)." The authors offer this as proof of their theory. However, it could also be proof of an opposing theory. The reference to "the remnant [of] this country" allows for migration of Book of Mormon peoples from Mesoamerica to what is now the United States. And the reference to Christ's appearance on "this continent" could just as easily imply that his visit occurred in Mesoamerica. If Joseph was trying to convey that all these ancient events took place within the borders of the United States, why did he not use "this country" for both references, instead of "this country" for one (where the remnants ended up) and "this continent" for the other (where Christ appeared)? Once again, no attempt was made to reconcile this doubt. Strangely, it was portrayed *only* as proof of the authors' position.

Another frustration included the authors' failure to address the one geographic necessity of a Book of Mormon setting—the only geographic fixture which all readers of the Book of Mormon immediately recognize. I speak of the "narrow neck of land." Writing about Book of Mormon geography without ever mentioning this most prominent landmark is like writing about the American Revolution without ever mentioning the name Washington. Not a single reference to it is made in this study.

These critiques do not discredit the Heartland Theory. They only serve to point out how the author's arguments are somewhat lacking. They also point out the exciting notion that perhaps there is more to be discovered—that there is more to the debate to be added. And I, for one, look forward to seeing it, studying it, and reaching new conclusions and new horizons. And this brings me to the ultimate conclusion of my review. Thanks to the research provided in this book, I was tossed (for the first time) into a wonderful intellectual contest. Indeed, the book lit a fire in me to seek truth. I have already purchased and read other books on the subject. I have read articles, and I have talked with experts in the field. At this stage of my personal exploration, I admit that I no longer *know* where the Book of Mormon narrative took place. But, ironically, for all I do *not* know, I have experienced higher levels of understanding. For I have seen Book of Mormon characters more clearly than ever before. I have pictured them within various proposed settings. I have gained insights into their lives and stories. For all this, I can thank *Prophecies and Promises*. Admittedly, my new insights have been focused not on the less important question of *where* the ancients were, but on *how* they were, *who* they were, *what* they were and *why* they were. And I can't help but think this achieved the authors' ultimate goal; for they did not dedicate their book to Heartland theorists, but to "all students of the Book of Mormon whose lives have been forever altered by the truths contained within its pages (p. xv)."


MarkoManager said...

Great post...

Anthony E. Larson said...

As with all BOM geography theories, this one has its strengths and its weaknesses. I studied them all many years ago under the direction of Carl Cheesman, a religion department instructor at BYU - the Tehuantepec Theory, the MesoAmerican Theory and the Heartland Theory included. My conclusion was and is that "... the entire face of the land changed" at Christ's crucifixion, therefore even the correct geographical location for the BOM story would not fit today's geographic parameters, the ones we see today. This is not a popular view since it offends our gradualist sensibilities. But since I find the gradualist model to be sorely lacking and insufficient, since I believe the scriptural model of great past catastrophes that very recently sculpted and altered the face of the Earth (as outlined by Joseph Smith and Orson Pratt), then it seems entirely possible and logical that BOM lands have been so greatly altered that the geographic markers within that ancient record are no longer recognizable in our world. So, I've turned my attention to the message of the book rather than the geography, a message, by the way, that was targeted at us, the Gentiles. That, in my opinion, is where our interpretive efforts should be focused, not on outward or external evidences. Focus on the message, not the messenger or its geography. If we would do that, our otherwise misdirected energies would undoubtedly teach us truths that the book was intially written to convey.

Derek said...

Wouldn't it be easier and more accurate to say that when it comes to BOM geography questions we're better off admitting that there is little support for any of these theories? Countless professors and "experts" have written about BOM geography all from assumptions of historicity. What if we accept the lack of historical evidence for the story of the BOM and take the book on exactly what it says. We have evidence from DNA studies that severely limit the existence of any hebrew blood lines and basically throw a wrench in the idea of "real" people as lamanites and nephites, what is the value after you strip all these made up suppositions which are imposed on the BOM by people who come to it with a notion that the evidence must fit this assumption or that assumption rather than simply looking at the evidence and dropping the assumptions.

I think we'd all be better off if we brought more intellectual honesty to our examinations of these geographical issues and admit the basics of our assumptions have not been grounded in scientific evidence or fact.