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Evolution of Book of Mormon Geography

Author: Compiled by Richard K. Miner
Date: 2000-12-07






Compiled by Richard K. Miner




Pres. Ezra Taft Benson:

Reed Benson, at a Mexico temple in Mexico City while on a tour of Book of Mormon lands at Mexico City, told the group that it was here in this temple that his father, President Ezra Taft Benson, received the strong impression to have people diligently study and spread the message of the Book of Mormon.

In his first conference address as President of the LDS Church on April 1986, he said, “Unless we read the Book of Mormon and give heed to its teachings, the Lord has stated in Section 84 D&C that the whole Church is under condemnation. "And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all. "(D&C 84:56) "And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments with them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written." (D&C 84:57)

Now we not only need to say more about the Book of Mormon, but we need to do more with it...

The Prophet Joseph said that "The Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than any other book." The Book of Mormon has not been, nor is it yet, the center of our personal study, family teaching, preaching, and missionary work. Of this we must repent...

I bless you with increased understanding of the Book of Mormon. I promise you that from this moment forward, if we will daily sup from its pages and abide by its precepts, God will pour out upon each child of Zion and the Church a blessing hitherto unknown-and we will plead to the Lord that He will begin to lift the condemnation-the scourge and judgment. Of this I bear solemn witness. “ (Benson, "A Sacred Responsibility)


The following are extracts from "The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book" by John L. Sorenson and from "Exploring the Book of Mormon" by Joseph L. Allen



1823: Joseph Smith was visited by the Angel Moroni and was shown plates in a hill near his home in Palmyra, New York. Age 18

On metal sheets which had the appearance of gold were engravings of an ancient language. The plates were concealed in a box made of stones which were cemented together and buried by Moroni 1400 years ago


1827: He received the plates and, though three years in his care, the actual actual translation time was approx. 60 days

1830 The translaated book was published.

During this time he made comments to his parents and family memmbers  about the features and dress of Book of Mormon people.

"Exactly what Joseph Smith believed at different times in his life concerning Book of Mormon geography in general is indeterminable due to lack of published accounts, except for his belief that John Lloyd Stephens' book, "Incidents of Travel in Central America" confirmed for him that these lands were Book of Mormon lands.

Other early church leaders thought otherwise due to the following incidents.



1831. Oliver Cowdery related story of a man walking along the road and was given a ride by Joseph.  When asked where he was going replied, "Cumorah", then disappeared. Whether his reply was real or imagined by Oliver is not known to us, but he called the hill "Cumorah" thereafter.

The hill was previously known as "Bible Hill" or" Mormon Hill".

Whether by this or by the assumption that "Cumorah" was where the last great battle between the Nephites and the Lamanites took place, certainly, most members of the Church for 150 years have considered the Hill Cumorah in New York to be the same hill where the last battle took place. (See David Whitmer; "Millenial Star" 40 (1870) p.722)



A talk by Brigham Young after the Saints arrived in SLC has been used as an argument on occasion to suggest that the Nephite Hill Cumorah was in New York. The rationale for the statement is that the Latter-Day Saint Hill Cumorah in New York opened up and a number of the brethren went inside where they saw wagon loads of records ... with the sword of Laban first sheathed then later unsheathed. The conclusion is that if the Latter-Day Saint Hill Cumorah opened up, then the last battles must have been fought around that hill. The statement of Brigham Young was printed in mainstream Latter-Day Saint literature. However, a statement about the same experience, given by Heber C. Kimball, has not been included in the literature. He said that the incident was a "VISION" that the brethren had of the hill. Note following quotes:


Brigham Young Discourses, 19:38

     "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."


Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses, 4:104

     Brother Mills mentioned in his song, that crossing the Plains with hand-carts was one of the greatest events that ever transpired in this Church. I will admit that it is an important even, successfully testing another method for gathering Israel, but its importance is small in comparison with the visitation of the angel of God to the Prophet Joseph, and with the reception of the sacred records from the hand of Moroni a the hill Cumorah. How does it compare with the vision that Joseph and others had, when they went into a cave in the hill Cumorah, and saw more records than ten men could carry? There were books piled upon tables, book upon book. Those records this people will yet have, if they accept of the Book of Mormon and observe its precepts, and keep the commandments."


THE ZELPH STORY (See Kenneth A. Godfrey, "The Zelph Stroy", FARMS paper GOF.89 1989)

Seven original accounts plus Joseph Smith's preceded the official account. Joseph's did not mention Zelph, Nephites or the hill Cumorah. Heber C. Kimball alone says that Zelph was killed in "the last destruction among the Lamanites" but the meaning of "last" in unclear.

In 1942, 8 years after the incident, Willard Richards was assigned to write the story for church history. His account was written in first person as if Joseph Smith was writing and contained references to the Lamanite-Nephite battle around the Hill Cumorah. These references were deleted in the official records of the church at that time presumably by Joseph Smith.

"Both his first and the deleted account speak of a vision that opened up to the Prophet Joseph Smith wherein he identified the bones from the grave to be that of a white Lamanite by the name of Zelph. One account identified Zelph with fighting that occurred in the Lamanite-Nephite battle at Cumorah, and the other account deleted any reference to the Hill Cumorah or to the last Lamanite-Nephite battle.

The edited portion was include in the 1904 edition of the Documentary History of the Church. This account was replaced by the unedited version in the 1934 and 1948 editions. In 1957, Preston Nibley, assistant Church historian, authorized Fletcher Hammond to announce that the 1904 edition was correct.

In 1948, after Joseph Fielding Smith had become Church historian, explicit references to the Hill Cumorah and the Nephites-Lamanite battle were reintroduced and that phrasing has continued to the present, including the phrase, "during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites" and all references relating to Cumorah.

It is likely that the thinking of the early Church leaders regarding Book of Mormon geography was subject to modification to substantiate their views, indicating that they themselves did not see the issue as settled.



In the margin of a manuscript of the 7th section of the D&C a statement in his hand writing indicated that the people of Lehi landed on the coast of Chile, 30 degrees south latitude. The origin of the words remains uncertain and "the statement should bear no particular weight in considering the geography of Book of Mormon events ... The fact that Little and Richards in their book asserted that the statement originated with Joseph and by revelation nevertheless impressed people who desired the assurance that a revelatory solution to the question of geography would provide."

These events as they were written up provided the foundation for the traditional theory of the Church that Lehi landed in Chile, the land of Nephi was in southern South America, Zarahemla was in North South America, the river Sidon was the Magdalena river in Columbia, the Narrow Neck of land was the Isthmus of Darien (Panama), Central and North America were in the land Northward and the last great Lamanite-Nephite war occurred in New York state around the hill now known as Cumorah.



1941. John Lloyd Stephens traveled in Central America and wrote about it with illustrations of ruins. "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan"

Joseph Smith in Times and Seasons; "It would 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. The truth injures no one...

John Taylor in Times and Seasons; Joseph Smith Editor; ... Central America ... is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien... The city of Zarahemla ... stood upon this land. ...The Nephites lived about the narrow neck of land which now embraces Central America. Who could have dreamed that twelve years could have developed such an incontrovertible testimony to the Book of Mormon?"

Orson Pratt 1849: "The Book of Mormon gives us the names and locations of great numbers of cities in the very region where Catherwood and Stephens afterwards discovered them."



Orson Pratt

Orson Pratt in 1868 reverted back to the geographical model of 1830. Either he forgot entirely about or ignored the Nauvoo development and its implication for geography, or else somehow he incorporated it into his 1868 model in a way not now apparent. His thinking of that era relative to Book of Mormon Geography became a part of the general LDS thinking for the next 100 years and is still adhered to by many saints.

George Reynolds adhered to the same philosophy as Pratt, but noted, however, that other men had somewhat different ideas.



A contemporary of George Reynolds ... concluded that the Nephites were confined to a relatively small area. "I conclude, therefore, that this migration of Nephites at this time extended no further northward than the southern parts of Mexico ... occupying the old seat of the Jaredite empire and civilization, and the land of Moron which the Nephites called "desolate."...


George Q. Cannon as a member of the First Presidency 1890.

"There is a tendency, strongly manifested at the present time among some of the brethren, to study the geography of the Book of Mormon.

The first presidency have often been asked to prepare some suggestive maps illustrative of Nephite geography, but have never consented to do so. Nor are we acquainted with any of the twelve Apostles who would undertake such a task. The reason is, that without further information they are not prepared even to suggest...

Of coarse there can be no harm result from the study of the geography of this continent at the time it was settled by the Nephites, drawing all the information possible from the record which has been translated for our benefit."


President Joseph F. Smith:

"The Lord had not yet revealed the landing place of Lehi and his people and that if, as he was being requested, he were to approve a particular map purporting to show the landing and afterwards it was found to be in error, it would affect the faith of the people."


Joseph Fielding Smith,

in 1938 as the Church historian ... reasserted the general posture of the General Hemispheric 1830s models. There was no question in his mind that tradition in this matter was based on revelation and that the New York hill Cumorah was where the final battles took place.

In the reprint of "the Documentary History" Joseph Fielding Smith made significant changes in key statements regarding the geography of Book of Mormon events. He rewrote the Zelph story reinstating all the excised statements and said, "this was the correct reading." They have remained to the present.


J. Reuben Clark

In a landmark 1938 speech to Church educators further limited options in thinking new thoughts. In it he called for retrenchment against liberal social, economic and political ideas that had crept into some seminary and institute classrooms. He insisted that all instruction must be gospel related and doctrinally based. That emphasis has continued in the schools to the present.





Benjamin Cluff; president of BYU. Formed a "Zarahemla Expedition."

"Geographically we entered Central America and Tehuantepec and, we think, entered the land of the Book of Mormon at the same place."

We "probably furnished some evidence to corroborate the theory ... of some Book of Mormon Authorities ... that the narrow neck of land ... is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.




1. "Ancient America and the Book of Mormon" Thomas Stuart Ferguson and Milton R. Hunter: ... laid out lengthy excerpts from Ixtlilxochitl, one of the native writers who recorded traditions in Mexico after the Spanish conquest, showing striking parallels to the Book of Mormon text.


2. Wells Jakeman, 1946, "Book of Mormon Archeology ... played a key role in providing a measure of legitimacy for scholarly studies of the Nephite record at a time when many of the Church did not welcome them. He assured hundreds of students with "assurance that Mesoamerica was the scene of Book of Mormon events and that the traditions of that area were strikingly confirmatory of the scripture. His students, Sorenson, Lowe, Warren, Norman, Allen and others went their own ways in Book of Mormon matters in varying degrees of distance from their mentor even while acknowledging important intellectual debt to him. Those who studied systematically with him ended up with no question but that the entire story took place in Mesoamerica and related significantly to what can be learned from the native Mesoamerican traditions. He insisted that the ultimate "test" for correlating the Book of Mormon in space and time with one particular set of Mesoamerican sites and localities would involve comprehensive study of the ancient world, not just geography. Ultimately tradition, archaeology, physical anthropology and linguistics had to combine. He was the first student of the geography of Book of Mormon events to gain professional standing as an "archaeologist" and to see that geography must connect with cultural contexts through meticulous scholarship.

By the sixties the increasing number of people working with the geography question had settled on Mesoamerica as the only plausible candidate area in the New World. The hill in New York could not be the scene of the final battle because of statements in the text itself, and only some place within the high civilization area call Mesoamerica could qualify.

By the seventies, Church authorities still held a cautious position on geography. At BYU Jakeman always felt held down under what he inferred to be a lid on explicit discussion. Once the Church had taken over financing the New World Archaeological Foundation from Ferguson in the fifties, its professional staff were specifically instructed not to discuss geography



Several books have come forth relative to Book of Mormon geography and archaeology due to some factors: (a) Anti‑Mormon writers were attacking the Book of Mormon on grounds which the LDS Church was unprepared to defend against by reason of its past reluctance to all, let alone encourage, discussions of geography and archaeology. Poorly informed opponents were having a field day attacking 19th century models and notions still widespread among church members and missionaries and which were represented as the definitive LDS position. Further, a growing LDS tourist clientele anxious to visit "Book of Mormon land" helped raise to consciousness the question of where those lands might be located specifically. Some prominent Authors: Ferguson, Hunter, Lowe, Sorenson, Warren, Vincent, Norman, K. Christensen, Palmer, Hauck, Allen, Clark, M. Smith T. Tucker and Treat.

What we see in our survey of all these geographic models which stretch over more than a century and a half is that superficial study has been the norm, while confusion has been rampant for at least the latter half of the period by reason of the multiplicity of discordant maps. It is true that for the last 75 years the old hemispheric model has tended to fall into disfavor, Tehuantipec as the narrow neck has become the common view, and the notion of sweeping geological changes at the time of the crucifixion of the Savior is now less often mentioned. Yet all sorts of variants continue to crop up or reappear.

It would be interesting to know the reasons why the Lord has kept the true geography of Book of Mormon lands from the knowledge of the Saints and the world until now when Pres. Benson has issued a challenge to "do more with it" then receive the "blessings hitherto unknown".



By Alan C. Miner

1. Distances: Thousands or hundreds of miles by foot? No roads. 10 miles/day. Mountains.

2. Terrain: Book of Mormon shows travel from Land Northward to Land Southward and from Zarahemla to Nephi relative easy and takes days rather than years.

Travel from New York to South America by foot‑almost impossibility.

3. Population Centers: 2 years after coming of Christ the land was covered with people and houses from sea East to Sea West almost as the sands of the seashore. ( Limited or all of America)

Only Central America evidences large population centers. New York shows evidence of family dwelling places, not communities.

4. Weather: No mention of hot or cold. Could all peoples of Nephi gather around the Hill Cumorah in New York for four years without mention of winters?

5. Language: No evidence of a written language in all of North or South America except Central America.

"AND IT CAME TO PASS" a phrase common to Mesoamerican language.

6. Archeology: All criteria of Book of Mormon met in Central America: buildings, tools, clothing, customs, Nephite-Mulekite-Jaradite cultures. Lands, boundaries, rivers, seas, many waters, wildernesses, narrow places.

7. History : Local histories by Ixtililxochitl, Sahagun, Landa, the Lords of Totonacapon provide hundreds of striking dates, events, cultures and traditions which correlate with Book of Mormon.

8. Quetzalcoatl and Jesus Christ accounts correlate.


MORMON'S TRAVELS (Limited to Mesoamerica or all of America?

By Alan C. Miner

320: "Ammoron….did hide up the records….in a hill….called Shim which was in the Land Northward near the Hill Cumorah, near the narrow neck of land.

Mormon, at age 10, instructed to "take the plates of      Nephi unto yourself ... when ye are about twenty and four years of age.

321: Mormon "carried into the land southward, even to the land of Zarahemla. The whole face of the land had become covered with buildings, and the people were as numerous almost, as it were the sand of the sea.

322: War begins "in the borders of Zarahemla, by the waters of Sidon.

326: "the people of Nephi appointed me that I should be their leader of their armies.

327: "My armies ... began to retreat towards the north countries ... to land of Joshua, which was in the borders west by the seashore."

327‑345: "where, behold I had gone according to the word of Ammaron and taken the plates of Nephi, and did make a full account... (? West coast to New York)

345‑349: "Nephites did begin to flee before the Lamanites ... until they came even to the land of Jashon near the land where Ammaron had deposited the records . (Another trip to New York?)

"we were again driven ... northward to the land called Shem." North of New York?)

"I did speak unto my people ... that they would stand boldly ... and fight for their wives and their children, and their houses, and their homes."

"we did contend with an army of 30,000 against an army of 50,000‑with such, firmness that they did flee before us ... until we had again taken possession of the lands of our inheritance. (Land Southward from New York?)

350: "We made a treaty." And the Lamanites did give unto us the land northward, yea, even to the narrow passage which led into the land southward. and we did give unto the Lamanites all the land southward."

"I did cause my people that they should gather themselves together at the land Desolation, to a city which was in the borders, by the narrow pass which led into the land southward-called the city of Desolation.

361: "the Lamanites did come down to the city of Desolation ... we did beat them...and did lay a great number of their dead into the sea."

363: I Mormon, did utterly refuse from this time forth to be a leader of their people because of their wickedness..

"The Nephites did go up with their armies to battle against the Lamanites, out of the land Desolation." but... "were driven back ... insomuch that the Lamanites did take possession of the city Desolation. ...the remainder did flee to the city Teancum" which "lay in the borders by the seashore ... near the city Desolation.

364: ... the Lamanites did come against the city Teancum ... but ... were repulsed ... and the Nephites... "took possession again of the city Desolation.

366: the Lamanites did take possession of the city Desolation ... and Teancum, and did take many prisoners both women and children, and did offer them up as sacrifices unto their idol gods."

367: "the Nephites, being angry ... did go against the Lamanites ... insomuch that they did ... drive them out of their lands. ( back to the South America?)

375: ... the Lamanites did come down against the Nephites with all their powers-and they fled ... and came to the city Boaz ... and did again flee from before them, taking all the inhabitants with them, both in towns and villages. And now I, Mormon , seeing that the Lamanites were about to overthrow the land, therefore I did go to the Hill Shim, and did take up all the records which Ammaron had hid up unto the Lord. ( A short trip or to New York?)

379: We had fled to the city Jordan and other cities ... which strongholds did cut them off that they could not get into the country ... to destroy the inhabitants of the land."

380:... we did again take flight... (beyond Cumorah and Shim?)

And I Mormon, wrote an epistle unto the king of the Lamanites, and desired of him that he would grant unto us that we might gather together our people unto the land of Cumorah, by a hill which was called Cumorah, and there we could give them battle. ...the king did grant me that which I desired.

And we did march forth to the land of Cumorah, and did pitch our tents around about the hill Cumorah; and it was a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains; and here we had hope to gain advantage over the Lamanites. (4 years of New York winter. logistics away from home 4,000 miles. Did the Lamanite army go back to the Land Southward?

I, Mormon, began to be old; and knowing it to be the last struggle of my people, and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites. and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni."

385: ... they came to battle against us ... my men were hewn down ... ten thousand and all my people save it were 24 of us, among whom was my son Moroni. (140,000 in all) ... "save a few who had escaped into the south countries, and a few who had dissented over unto the Lamanites.

400: Moroni writing. "the Nephites who had escaped into the country southward were hunted by the Lamanites, until they were all destroyed. ‑therefore I will write and hide up the records in the earth; and whither I go it mattereth not."

420: "I supposed not to have written more, but I have not as yet perished ... and I seal up these records, after I have spoken a few words by way of exhortation unto you.


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