Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Treason of the Geographers - part 1

The Treason of the Geographers: Mythical “Mesoamerican” Conspiracy and the Book of Mormon

Matthew Roper wrote a formal article in the Interpreter site here. I made some comments there about the history of my efforts to get his input, but comments get buried in that kind of format. 

First, before commenting on Roper's article, I point out the viewpoint bias of the Interpreter and its authors. The editors rejected a paper of mine because they disagreed with my conclusions; they had already decided that Winchester didn't write the 1842 Times and Seasons articles and didn't want to publish anything based on a contrary point of view. This is reminiscent of the old FARMS publications, which should surprise no one. Presumably, their citation cartel peer reviewed Roper's article. They seemed to have missed a few things, as I'll point out. Despite all of this, nothing in Roper's article challenges my proposal that Winchester wrote those articles.

Second, I want to emphasize that my comments focus on the content of the article and not on its author. When I review material, I focus on the text, not the author, always with the objective of improving the piece, correcting mistakes, etc. I appreciate Roper addressing these issues and I thank the Interpreter for publishing it. Hopefully the discussion will grow from here; I certainly have a lot more to say.   

Third, as a former Mesoamericanist myself for decades, I understand the difficulty of conceiving a different paradigm. There seems to be an incredible amount of resistance to the possibility of a North American setting for the Book of Mormon. That resistance is visible throughout this and other writings by Mesoamericanist authors, as I try to point out in my peer review below.

It has become apparent to me that Mesoamericanist discussions about North American settings focus on fighting, not understanding, what the proponents have to say. "What we've got here is failure to communicate." Hopefully my response will clarify why this keeps happening.
Failure to Communicate - 'Cool Hand Luke'.jpg
"What we've got here is failure to communicate."
All I wanted to know was who wrote the 1842 Times and Seasons articles. If it was Joseph Smith, fine. John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, William Smith, W.W. Phelps, or anyone else--fine. That it turned out to be Benjamin Winchester was a tremendous surprise to me because I had never heard of him. 

For me, this project is purely about getting the history right. Roper knows this. Back in February 2015, before I published anything, I went to Roper's office at the Maxwell Institute because I thought he would be interested in my findings. I think it's clear from his review that he is uninterested in who wrote the articles; instead, he thinks this is all about Book of Mormon geography. It's true that the Zarahemla book includes a section on geography; the topic is inherent in the title. But that was a product of the historical research. Early on, when I presented my findings to other Mesoamerican proponents, they responded that the authorship of the 1842 articles didn't affect geography questions. Several have told me that in the last few weeks. I expect that reaction to become the standard response, and I will address its merits elsewhere.

Here are my stream-of-consciousness notes as I read Roper's article, in red.

Abstract: The claim that God revealed the details of Book of Mormon geography is not new, but the recent argument that there was a conspiracy while the Prophet was still alive to oppose a revealed geography is a novel innovation. 
[This oft-repeated Mesoamericanist argument includes two subtle but unstated assumptions; i.e., that Joseph Smith and his contemporaries 1) did not disclose things they learned by revelation unless they proclaimed it as revelation; and 2) even when they did proclaim it as revelation, their statements are not credible if they contradict the Mesoamerican theory. I suspect Roper will give me an opportunity to revisit this later so I'll save further comment until then.] 
A recent theory argues that the “Mesoamerican theory” or “limited Mesoamerican geography” originated in 1841 with Benjamin Winchester, an early Mormon missionary, writer, and dissident, who rejected the leadership of Brigham Young and the Twelve after 1844. 
[Actually, he was publicly disciplined multiple times before 1844 for rejecting the counsel and leadership of Joseph Smith and his other leaders. It was Joseph, not Brigham, who said Winchester had a rotten heart and would injure the Church as much as he could--a statement Winchester himself later brought up in a letter he wrote to Brigham Young.]
This theory also claims that three unsigned editorials on Central America and the Book of Mormon published in the Times and Seasons on September 15 and October 1, 1842 were written by Benjamin Winchester, who successfully conspired with other dissidents to publish them against the will of the Prophet. 
[This might be someone else's theory, but it's not the one I set forth in the book. Winchester and the others were not dissidents; they were overzealous missionaries.]
Three articles address these claims. This first article addresses two questions: Did Joseph Smith, as some have claimed, know the details of and put forth a revealed Book of Mormon geography? Second, what is a Mesoamerican geography and does it constitute a believable motive for a proposed Winchester conspiracy?
The Lost City of Zarahemla: From Iowa to Guatemala and Back Again is the latest manifestation of an ideological movement currently popular on the periphery of Mormon culture.1 
[This argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularity) conveys the message that only a minority of people outside the mainstream of LDS culture reject the Mesoamerican setting. It is a classic logical fallacy, but coming from an LDS author, it is especially unpersuasive; if popularity is determinative, how can Roper explain belonging to a Church that represents less than 0.1% of the world's population? So why would Roper make this argument? I suspect because it appears more palatable than what it really is: a thinly veiled appeal to authority, Because Mesoamericanist LDS scholars have persuaded CES and other departments of the Church to portray Book of Mormon events exclusively in Mesoamerican settings in media, Church artwork, Church manuals and magazines, Deseret Book publications, etc., therefore the Church itself must approve that theory. And I'll grant him this: he makes a good point. Although officially the Church takes a position of neutrality on the where the Book of Mormon took place, in practice the Church is only neutral on where in Mesoamerica it took place. However, I question how successful this onslaught of Mesoamerican indoctrination, from Primary through CES and on to Church media, manuals and magazines, has really been, a topic I'll return to. For now, it's enough that Roper recognizes this "ideological movement" (another pejorative term I won't take the time to analyze) is currently popular. It's becoming more popular all the time--for good reason.]
John Neville, [Looks like attention to detail may be a problem. It's actually Jonathan, which one would think Roper would know since we've met four times in person.] an attorney and part-time novelist, has spun a tale of conspiracy that may tantalize some readers but is more fiction than history.
[It's true that I have written a lot of fiction, but I've never annotated a novel with over 400 footnotes, mostly to original historical documents. Readers might be interested to know that when I showed one of the critical letters to Roper, he told me he'd never seen it before. And, despite Roper's effort to characterize my work as fictional, I've written far more nonfiction than fiction over the years.]
 The argument that [Page 162]Joseph Smith knew the details of Book of Mormon geography through revelation is not new, 
[True; it originated, according to his mother, before he even got the plates.]
but the claim that there was a conspiracy while the Prophet was still alive to oppose a revealed geography is a notable innovation. 
[I'm fascinated by this spin. Those who have read the book can see I emphasized (and documented) that Winchester was a zealous missionary. He never opposed the abundant North American evidence of the Book of Mormon; in fact, he cited Josiah Priest's book Ancient Antiquities. The book demonstrates that Winchester was frustrated by the attacks against the Book of Mormon. He wrote the first rebuttal of the Spaulding theory, for example. He sought every means possible to "prove" the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, not only through arguments supported by Biblical scriptures, but by citing external evidence from throughout the Americas. I found no evidence that he opposed what Joseph said about the Book of Mormon setting in North America. He just wanted to expand the setting to Central America to take advantage of Stephens' popular book, and he went too far when he claimed Zarahemla was in Quirigua, that Lehi landed in Mesoamerica, etc.] 
Neville claims that what he calls the “limited Mesoamerican geography” originates in dissident 
[Roper keeps using this word. I don't recall using it, so I just did a word check on my manuscript and it doesn't appear. Of course, Roper is free to use whatever term he wants, but readers should know that's his characterization, not mine.] 
Mormon circles beginning with Benjamin Winchester, an early convert and writer who left the Church after the death of Joseph Smith.2 He claims that three unsigned editorials on Central America and the Book of Mormon published in the Times and Seasons on September 15 and October 1, 1842, were written by Winchester rather than Joseph Smith and close associates, as some scholars believe.3 
[Before I even read this article, I wondered how long it would take Roper to cite himself. It wasn't long: his first footnoted cites himself--twice. His third footnote is another citation to himself, a very unfortunate article that actually prompted my whole inquiry into this topic. I encourage everyone reading this to go to this footnote 3 and look up the article. You'll see for yourself that Roper's assumptions about history are incorrect and his conclusions don't align with his own data.]
According to Neville, “the articles are momentous because they place Book of Mormon events in Mesoamerica, specifically Guatemala. … The articles are unusual because the Central American identification is at variance with other statements Joseph made placing Book of Mormon events in North America” (5). The publication of these articles was part of an elaborate
[I'm refraining from commenting on every detail, but this term "elaborate" is not stated or implied in my book. The "elaborate scheme" was actually part of the ordinary course of business. Winchester mailed an article to the Times and Seasons that was published in its very first issue (Vol. 1, No. 1) in November 1839. He was a steady contributor for years leading up to the Sept/Oct 1842 articles.]
scheme to get Winchester’s controversial ideas about the Book of Mormon in print:
In March 1841, the Prophet Joseph Smith received a revelation naming the area of Iowa across from Nauvoo as Zarahemla. That same month, a man Joseph described as rotten at heart, who would injure the Church as much as he could, began a scheme to move Zarahemla to Guatemala. His efforts culminated in an article in the Church’s Times and Seasons on 1 October 1842. From that date until now, this man’s scheme has succeeded.4 
[Is there any better evidence that the scheme has succeeded than this very article? Roper has already asserted that only a "periphery of Mormon culture" rejects Winchester's ideas. What more success could Winchester hope for, short of universal acceptance? The Mesoamerican theory has 1) successfully cast doubt on the credibility of two of the Three Witnesses, 2) has taught that Joseph Smith didn't know much about the Book of Mormon and was not only speculating about where it took place, but changed his mind (and even then was wrong), and 3) seeks to establish that Joseph Smith didn't even translate the book accurately because he didn't understand Mesoamerican culture. Frankly, I'd say Winchester's scheme succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, but I also think Winchester himself would be appalled. He sought to prove the Book of Mormon by extrinsic evidence as a missionary tool, not to undermine the Three Witnesses and the text itself.]
Neville claims that Winchester — motivated by excessive zeal and convinced that his new idea would win more converts to the [Page 163]Church — conspired to get his ideas accepted and published.
[Okay, now Roper is reflecting what the book claims. Much better.]
This new interpretation, Neville insists, contradicted Joseph Smith’s revelations that established that the Book of Mormon took place in North America and not Central or South America. 
[I'll accept this as valid criticism if that's what the book says. I don't think the interpretation was "new" to Winchester; others had inferred a hemispheric geography before Winchester even joined the Church. The "new course of argument" I propose Winchester introduced was linking the Book of Mormon to specific sites in Central America as described by popular books on archaeology. It's one thing to say, as Orson Pratt and others had, that any evidence of ancient civilization in the Americas is evidence of the Book of Mormon. That's a sort of "hinterlands" argument; i.e., that Book of Mormon people could have migrated well outside the setting of the specific narrative in the text. A generalized hemispheric/hinterland argument doesn't contract either the text or what Joseph Smith said about the North American setting. It's something quite different to specify that Zarahemla was in Quirigua, and that's what I say was the problem with what Winchester wrote in the 1842 articles.]
He claims that the “Mesoamerican theory” of Book of Mormon geography has resulted in a number of “evils” that have “hurt” the Church, undermined faith in Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling, and continues to have a baleful effect on its members.5 
[I guess I just made it worse a few paragraphs ago by restating what I think the Mesoamerican theory has done. But I don't see how any of my observations can be disputed. I can document every one of them in the writings of Mesoamerican proponents, but they are inherent in the core premise of the Mesoamerican argument. Roper's footnote 5 here also deserves comment. First, he claims I "hijacked" the term evils from George Q. Cannon. Actually, I quoted the term. I encourage everyone to read what Cannon said and see if the connotation cannot include the problems I've outlined. Second, Roper excuses Mesoamerican art by reference to the "old hemispheric view," a view he and all the other Mesoamericanists reject, and a view that is not portrayed in Church art anyway. The two examples in the book depict Christ appearing to Mayan temples in Mesoamerica--an explicit declaration of the setting of that event. Roper writes "More importantly, the question of which artwork is used in Church settings likely has more to do with the artist’s perspective and what appeals to the viewer than any attempt by Church leaders to sponsor geographical theories." Contrary to Roper's assertion, two of the best-known pieces, visible here and here, were painted by non-LDS artists commissioned by the Church to paint these particular pieces. Roper claims these non-LDS artists were painting their own "perspective" on the Book of Mormon. Is he suggesting nonbelievers place the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica? 
[BTW, these two paintings are on display in the Grandin printing shop visitor's center in Palmyra. Imagine the confusion faced by visitors who are told the plates were buried a few miles away, and two of the Three Witnesses whose testimonies are also in display said the Book of Mormon Cumorah is the same one you can visit down the road, but modern LDS scholars have determined that the record on the plates actually relates the history of people living in Mesoamerica.] 
Anyone can look at the media section on and search in vain for a non-Mesoamerican depiction. This is not a free market site, either; materials posted there are officially approved (and they appear in temples, chapels and visitors centers, which are very carefully controlled.) Roper infers that the only reason there is no North American artwork there is because of "quality and the artist's ability to influence the viewer." Which is my point, exactly; this artwork has influenced LDS viewers from early childhood on. As for quality, there are artists who have produced Church media and artwork depicting Mesoamerica who regret that depiction and have produced variations set in North America. The video "Scriptures Legacy" is a step in this direction as well, with a combination of North American and Mesoamerican depictions. It will be interesting to see if this discussion leads to more inclusive artwork on I hope so.]
“The negative impact of Winchester’s Mesoamerican approach — ‘the evils that may result therefrom’ — may have started in the 1840s, but it continues today, perhaps more than ever” (191). It “permeates Church publications” including the Ensign and Church manuals (1, 191, 331). Neville decries “the widespread depiction of a Mayan influence, such as the Friberg paintings … and numerous related books, videos, and even packaged tours” (5). “Other evils include essays addressing challenging [Page 164]issues on the Book of Mormon recently made available on the Church website which make reference to the unsigned Times and Seasons editorials on Central America and the work of LDS scholars who support a Mesoamerican interpretation, and also “Church-approved artwork” depicting the resurrected Savior’s visit to the Nephites in a Mesoamerican setting (191).6 
[Roper's footnote here is another appeal to authority; his own work is cited in the referenced article. One goal I hope everyone shares is the constant pursuit of improvement, which was the point of my observations. More information is better than less, and more accurate information is better than less accurate information. I welcome this long overdue conversation because there have been a lot of unchallenged assumptions that have been taken for granted.]
“Even today, 174 years later in the year 2015,” the negative influence of Mesoamerican ideas “is seen inside every one of the Church’s thousands of chapels around the world” (1). But not to fear, writes Neville, “replacing Mesoamerica with North America will strengthen the faith of members, encourage missionaries, and remove an unnecessary stumbling block for investigators” (357).
Lost City reflects a “Heartland” ideology in need of a villain, 
[How is a proposed geography and interpretation of the text an "ideology?" Or is Roper projecting because his own obsession with Mesoamerica is an ideology? And I didn't set out to find a villain; I just wanted to know who wrote the 1842 articles and why Roper denied the obvious implications of his own data.]
and Neville seeks to make Winchester the scapegoat for what he considers an original sin of Mesoamerican geography. 
[I'm getting confused by Roper's spin. First, Winchester was a dissident (which I never called him). Then he was a participant in an elaborate scheme. Now he's a scapegoat. I just think he was an overzealous missionary who went too far.]
“Although this is not a criminal case,” Neville writes, “I pretended it was” (7). Neville’s placement of his arguments within the adversarial context of a courtroom invites the case for the defense. 
[Definitely, which is why I approached Roper with my findings before I ever published the book--naively or foolishly, I don't know yet, but certainly he never sought to discuss the facts or help with my investigation. Throughout the book, I tried to point out alternative inferences and possibilities--which is what a defense lawyer does. I pretended it was a criminal case as a framework for investigation, not for prosecution. The facts weren't handed to me; I had to dig them out. When I started, the only thing I knew is that Roper's own data excluded the three suspects he named: Joseph Smith, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff. Originally, I suspected Sidney Rigdon. I had never heard of Winchester until well into the investigation. I think anyone who pursued this case the way I did would uncover the same evidence and reach the same conclusion. I have far, far more material than I could fit in the book.] 
This requires a wider range than the specifics of Neville’s conspiracy theory and an examination of the assumptions he has made about the nature of revelation and Joseph Smith that do not fit the known historical facts. I will cover the important background in three articles. Each will examine a different facet of Joseph Smith’s connection with ideas about Book of Mormon geography and correlations with Central America.
1.     Neville presents his case under the presumption that a crime was committed. [Roper quoted me saying it was not a criminal case. I pretended it was to have an analytical framework for the investigation.] 
In order to commit a crime against a revealed geography, there should be evidence for such a revelation. 
[Roper keeps using this term "revealed geography," a term I never used.]
If not, there was no crime to begin with and the effort to establish means, motive, and opportunity is irrelevant. 
[The "crime" I investigated was actually the authorship of the editorials, for which establishing means, motive and opportunity is essential. Roper has digressed from the whole point of the book, which was to answer the question, Who wrote these anonymous editorials? The "crime" he's analyzing here is unrelated to authorship, but to content. I did briefly touch on the "crime" of Mesoamerican theory, as Roper has complained; I have another book in the works that focuses on that particular topic (out in October).] 
This article will address two issues. First, what did Joseph Smith believe about [Page 165]Book of Mormon geography?7
[I recommend everyone read the article Roper cites here. It's his own article, but it makes exactly the points I tried to set forth about how the Mesoamerican theory affects one's interpretation of historical facts and the inferences one draws.] 
Were Joseph Smith’s views, insofar as they can be known to us, based upon revelation, his own opinions, or a combination of both? Second, what exactly is a “Mesoamerican geography”? Does it constitute a believable motive for Winchester’s theoretical “scheme”? Neville’s argument rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of early geographical interpretations that requires correction and clarification.
[I'm always open to this, which is why I visited Roper back in February 2015 seeking his input and expertise. Had he not rejected my overtures, the correction and clarification he is about to give would have been incorporated into the text.]
2.     Once the background context has been established, I will discuss the implications for Neville’s theoretical conspiracy. A second article will discuss the influence of Stephen’s and Catherwood’s 1841 publication of Incidents of Travel in Central America on early thinking about the Book of Mormon, including that of Joseph Smith.
[Good. I have quite a bit more on this topic in my expansion of the historical material, titled Brought to Light, to be published in mid-September.]
3.     Having laid this historical foundation, a third article will then revisit the question of who authored the unsigned editorials in 1842. We will expand our pool of potential candidates for the authorship of those articles to include Benjamin Winchester and others in order to evaluate Neville’s claims and then discuss the implications of our findings.
A Revealed Book of Mormon Geography?
Neville argues that the idea that Joseph Smith may not have been an expert on geographical information in the text of the Book of Mormon, that he may have had and expressed opinions and drew his own deductions about some matters such as geography, is “evil” and “undermines faith in the Prophet’s calling as prophet, seer, and revelator” (192). 
[Here is the entire sentence in context: "When attributed to Joseph Smith, these unsigned editorials about Mesoamerica convey a message that Joseph was confused, unsure—or was purely speculating—about The Book of Mormon, as if he didn’t know much about it. This message undermines faith in the Prophet’s calling as prophet, seer and revelator." This is far different from Roper's characterization. I don't think, and I certainly never wrote, that Joseph Smith having and expressing opinions and drawing his own deductions undermines faith in his calling.]
He insists that because the Prophet spoke with angelic messengers, translated the Book of Mormon, and later went through the manuscript and made corrections to the text, that he was an expert on the meaning of the text. 
[This is one of the most fascinating, and I think dangerous, claims made by the Mesoamericanists; i.e., that they know more about the meaning of the text than Joseph Smith did, because they know more about Mesoamerica than he did. They claim he used the wrong terms for animals and directions, so they supply a "more correct" interpretation of the text. The translation we have, supposedly, is only evidence of what Joseph translated, but is not evidence of what was on the plates.]  
The issue of “what Joseph knew” about Book of Mormon geography ought to be approached as a research question, not a theological given. 
[I'm not sure how to interpret this point. Is it a theological given that Moroni informed Joseph "concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity," or are we supposed to research whether that in fact happened? If we agree that it happened, then we can discuss the extent of this "brief sketch" as long as we want, but there is no empirical way to determine that extent, apart from other statements Joseph made. Roper has argued in his interpretation of the Wentworth letter that Joseph didn't know much about the Book of Mormon, but is his argument a product of research or pure opinion? If it's research, I'd like to see it.] 
Neville insists that Joseph knew, but did not tell, or perhaps could not tell (164). But how can Neville know what Joseph knew if Joseph didn’t say?
[I insist no such thing. The context speaks for itself: "There is one additional aspect of Joseph’s reaction that is less a matter of history than theology. Joseph received Priesthood keys for the gathering of Israel, for the sealing power, for the spirit of Elijah, and much more. However, Moroni retains the “keys of the record of the stick of Ephraim,” meaning The Book of Mormon. For this reason, Joseph Smith may not have had the authorization to reveal the geography of Book of Mormon events, even though he apparently had the knowledge. His letter to Emma, for example, refers to the plains of the Nephites as if they were as familiar to him as the accounts Joseph’s mother described him sharing years previously. Joseph likely never intended his letter to Emma for public consumption.
If this is the case—that Joseph did not have the freedom to reveal what he knew (and the historical evidence strongly implies that it is)—it is especially presumptuous to conclude that he refrained from taking stronger action to the Zarahemla article on the ground that he himself was speculating, or uncertain, about Book of Mormon geography."]
Latter-day Saint scripture suggests that prophets and seers received many revelations, but sometimes, for various reasons, did not always fully understand what the Lord had given them. Lehi saw the Tree of Life and much else in vision. Nephi saw the things that his father saw. When [Page 166]his brothers asked Nephi to explain one of the geographical features of the vision — the river — Nephi said it represented filthiness and “so much was his [father’s] mind swallowed up in other things that he beheld not the filthiness of the water” (1 Nephi 15:27). Nephi’s comment clarifies that even those who receive revelations may not fully understand or be prepared and able to interpret every aspect of them. Alma’s teachings to Corianton about resurrection of the body provide additional insight (Alma 40:3–10, 16–22). Alma was careful to distinguish between what the Lord had revealed to him and what he had not. He knew of certain things only because he had made them a matter of diligent and persistent inquiry. He did not know the times appointed for resurrection of the body, but in the absence of more detailed information from God on the matter, saw nothing improper about expressing an opinion about it (Alma 40:20).
[No disagreement here.]
Writing with the wisdom of personal experience, Joseph Smith taught the Saints that “it <is> a great thing to enquire at the hand of God, or to come into his presence and we feel fearful to appro[a]ch him on subject[s] that are of little or no consequen[ce], to satisfy the enqueries of individuals.”8 There is nothing wrong with the study of Book of Mormon geography, and careful study of the text rewards the reader as many can attest, but in the Lord’s eyes, the need for revelation on the location of Zarahemla may not fall high on the spectrum of our eternal priorities. 
[Wait a minute. Now Roper is telling us what the Lord thinks about this? Is this a product of study or a theological given? From a purely analytical standpoint, if the Lord does not see a need for revelation on the location of Zarahemla couldn't that be because he has already revealed it?]
One might even be inclined to apply Alma’s teachings on faith to the geography of the Book of Mormon, “How much more cursed is he that knoweth … than he that only believeth, or only hath cause to believe, and falleth into transgression” (Alma 32:19). The privilege we have to read the Book of Mormon, to carefully study the text and even develop our tentative and often faulty opinions, is a blessing if it leads us to follow its teachings.
[All true, in an aphoristic way. But that's also true of the Bible, and the Book of Mormon was given to clarify the Bible. Why can't the Doctrine and Covenants also be used to clarify the Book of Mormon? I can't understand the resistance of the Mesoamericanists to simply try using the D&C as part of their analysis.]
Speaking of her husband’s activities during the translation of the Book of Mormon, Emma Smith remembered:
One time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, “Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?” When I answered, “Yes,” he replied “Oh! I was afraid I had been deceived.” He had such a limited knowledge of history [Page 167]at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls.9
The passage is interesting for what it suggests about the difference between a text, even a text revealed through the gift and power of God, and its meaning. Joseph is reading the text of the Book of Mormon from the seer stone to his scribe. He sees the words on the stone, and then wonders if there was some mistake when it speaks of the “walls” of Jerusalem. He only knows about the walls of the city because the text says so. He has not seen a vision of the walls of Jerusalem. 
[How does Roper know this? He is making inferences from a very brief recollection. Would a line of text or a brief vision be more likely to cause one to turn pale as a sheet?]
He is [has?] a first-hand witness of the revealed text but has no knowledge of its geographical accuracy beyond the report of Emma, who has heard of or read about the walls of Jerusalem but never been there herself. The text is divinely revealed, but for geographical understanding Joseph is dependent on a potentially fallible human source. 
[This is an incredible argument--and completely devastating to the Mesoamerican position. Joseph never claimed Moroni taught or showed him anything about Jerusalem. It was "the aboriginal inhabitants of this country" that Moroni taught him about. During the entire translation process, the only time Joseph feared he was being deceived was when he saw (in the text or in vision) the walls of Jerusalem! He was confident regarding everything he translated about the New World because he'd seen it! What would be more startling to a person: seeing walls around Jerusalem or seeing Christ descending to the American continent? How about watching a man as he observes the finger of the Lord touch a stone? Or people raised from the dead, fierce battles, prisons falling, people being burned to death, strange animals and money and buildings and governments. None of that startled him because Moroni had shown it to him first! Joseph was prepared for everything he encountered in the text, except, apparently, things Moroni hadn't shown him.]
“It is asserted by one of his principle followers,” wrote one critic with amazement, “that Jo, even at this day is profoundly ignorant of the meaning of many of the words contained in the Book of Mormon.”10 For the critic this seemed scandalous, but for Emma and the Saints, these intellectual limitations were evidence that the Book of Mormon translation was the work of God, not a fictional product of Joseph Smith’s imagination.
[Good point about his ignorance of language being evidence he didn't write the book, but it is also evidence that Moroni must have tutored him--just as Joseph claimed.]
When left to his own, Joseph Smith was just as prone as any of us to make mistakes and sometimes express faulty opinions. Sometimes the Lord would correct him. Sometimes he did not. According to one report, “Joseph Smith said to D Ells, & to the Congregation that he for a length of time, thought on phreknoleagee [phrenology], & that he had a Revelation. the Lord Rebuking him sharply in Crediting such a thing; & further said there was no Reality in such a science But was the works of the Devil.”11 In an interview with a reporter in 1843, the Prophet shared additional insight relating to his role as a prophet and revelator.
Speaking of revelations, he stated that when he was in a “quandary,” he asked the Lord for revelation, and when he could not get it, he “followed the dictates of his own judgement, which were as good as a revelation to him; but he never gave [Page 168]anything to his people as revelation, unless it was revelation, and the Lord did reveal himself to him.”12
[I don't see how this helps Roper's argument. Joseph considered the "dictates of his own judgement" to be "as good as revelation to him." Isn't that why such an effort has been made to assemble every scrap of evidence about what Joseph said? No doubt he made mistakes, but wouldn’t these occur when he didn’t respond to the dictates of his own judgment? Otherwise, he felt these dictates were as good as revelation. True, he didn't relate things as revelation to the people unless the Lord revealed it; but that’s not to say he revealed to the people everything the Lord revealed to him, nor does it follow that he revealed every revelation as an express revelation. In the case of Zelph, for example, he told the men he had a vision, and they recorded what they heard him say. We’ll see whether, and how, Roper treats that incident.]
Joseph received revelations from God, but he did not always get a revelation when he asked for one. There would be no need for the Prophet to call attention to divine communication if everything he said was revelation. At those times when revelation on a question was not forthcoming he used “the dictates of his own judgement,” which generally served him well, but were of course still “his own” not God’s.
[Except he considered them "as good as revelation..."]
Jesse Crosby, an early convert, said that he once went with some friends to ask Brother Joseph his opinion on a public matter. “He told them he did not enjoy the right vouchsafed to every American citizen, that of free speech. He said to them that when he ventured to give his private opinion on any subject of importance his words were often garbled and their meaning twisted and then given out as the word of the Lord because they came from him.”13 The fact that most of what Joseph said does not come to us first-hand but through the accounts and recollections of others suggests the need for caution in our interpretation of secondary historical sources.
Neville cites the account of Joseph Smith’s mother Lucy Mack Smith suggesting Joseph Smith’s revelatory knowledge of some aspects of Nephite culture. This account, he writes, “remains the most comprehensive description of Joseph Smith’s familiarity with Book of Mormon culture and setting.” (265). Lucy’s wrote her recollection of these evening conversations just over two decades after the events they describe. She recalled,
In the course of our evening conversations Joseph would give us some of the most amusing recitals which could be immagined he would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent their dress their maner of traveling the animals which they rode The cities that were built by them the structure of their buildings with every particular of their mode of warfare their religious worship–as particularly as though he had spent his life with them.14
[Page 169]If the Lord revealed certain things to the Prophet about ancient Book of Mormon people and culture, did this include the details of Book of Mormon geography? It is worth observing that while Lucy wrote of some cultural elements that Joseph seemed to be familiar with, geography is not one that she mentioned. 
[Okay, then let's ask what is "geography" in this context. Joseph could only have learned these things from Moroni (and the Wentworth letter corroborates his mother's account, despite Roper's effort to cast doubt because of the time lag between the events and this particular recollection.) Could Joseph describe how the Nephites traveled and not know what their roads and the terrain looked like? He described the "structure of their buildings;" could he do that and not see what terrain they were built upon? He described their mode of warfare, which again implicates at least terrain. In the sense that "geography" consists of terrain and features, Joseph could not have done what his mother said and not have also seen the geography. He may or may not have been shown a map or a aerial perspective, but from his mother's account, he had to have seen enough that he could recognize it if/when he saw it in the real world.] 
Being the translator, even an inspired translator of an ancient text, does not necessarily make one an expert on the geography of that text. 
[This is a red herring. So far as I know, no one has made this argument.]
Joseph was surprised when he learned that Jerusalem had walls. This suggests that he could be as surprised by the text as we might be. 
[Roper is doubling down on the argument that devastates the Mesoamerican theory! Joseph was never surprised by the text, once he got into the New World--precisely because he'd seen it before, as he claimed in the Wentworth letter and as his mother described.]
If the Lord saw fit to reveal the details of geography to Joseph Smith, He could of course do so, yet one could also conceivably see a rock, a tree, a building, a city, or a man in vision and yet not know or fully understand the surrounding geographical details.
[It's not clear why Roper diverges from his own source. Joseph's mother didn't say he saw a rock or a tree; he saw "the ancient inhabitants of this continent their dress their maner of traveling the animals which they rode The cities that were built by them the structure of their buildings with every particular of their mode of warfare their religious worship." These are all things mentioned in the text, so it makes sense that Moroni prepared him for the translation by showing him all of this. I'm not sure what Roper means by "understanding the surrounding geographical details," but is it possible to picture a manner of traveling, a city, a mode of warfare, or even religious worship without some geographical context? One might reasonably ask if there are plains in Mesoamerica that so resemble those in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois that Joseph could have confused the two, but to argue he could not have recognized what Moroni had shown him in vision is not an argument that comes from study.]

At the time the Book of Mormon came forth, it conflicted with popular perceptions of native American culture. David Whitmer, one of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, remembered the challenge this seemed to pose. As reported in an interview with a reporter for the Chicago Times:
When they were first commanded to testify of these things, they demurred and told the Lord the people would not believe them for the book concerning which they were to bear record told of a people who were educated and refined, dwelling in large cities; whereas all that was then known of the early inhabitants of this country was the filthy, lazy, degraded and ignorant savages that were roaming over the land. “The Lord told us, in reply that he would make it known to the people that the early inhabitants of this land had been just such a people as they were described in the book, and he would lead them to discover the ruins of the great cities, and they should have abundant evidence of the truth of that which is written in the book, all of which,” said Mr. Whitmer, “has been fulfilled to the very letter.”15
[I'm glad to see credence given to David Whitmer's recollections. Everything he recalled here is consistent with both a North American and a Mesoamerican setting, which is exactly how Winchester (and others) wrote about the topic.]
[I'm returning here after having finished Roper's article because I think readers should know something about David Whitmer. The interview Roper cites here took place in 1883. As Roper implies, Whitmer was an effective witness with a solid memory. 
What Roper doesn't get into was an interview Whitmer gave in 1878 to Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith. I discuss this on my blog, hereThe two Apostles sent a formal report of their interview to President John Taylor and the Council of the Twelve. It was published in theMillennial Star (Vol. 40, No. 49, Dec. 9, 1878, p. 769, online here, scroll down to Dec. 9 and open the first file) titled “Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith.” 
During the interview, Whitmer said he, Oliver and Joseph were riding in a wagon on the way to Fayette when a man appeared next to the wagon. "I invited him to ride if he was going our way. But he said very pleasantly, “No, I am going to Cumorah.’ This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant. We all gazed at him and at each other, and as I looked round enquiringly of Joseph the old man instantly disappeared, so that I did not see him again....It was the messenger who had the plates, who had taken them from Joseph just prior to our starting from Harmony." 
The Mesoamericanists don't like this interview because Whitmer recalls a divine messenger himself using the term Cumorah to describe the site in New York. Whitmer had never heard the word Cumorah and didn't know what it meant, which makes sense because this occurred in 1829 and while he had just witnessed the plates (and much more) a few days previously, the Book of Mormon was yet to be published. Whitmer was with Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith when the messenger mentioned Cumorah. If Whitmer was right, then everything the Mesoamericanists say about New York Cumorah collapses; i.e., the early Saints knew Cumorah was in New York because a divine messenger told them. 
And if the New York Cumorah was the scene of the last battles, then the Mesoamerican model can't work.]
Whitmer’s recollection is of interest in light of Mother Smith’s comments about Joseph Smith’s “evening conversations.” The earliest Latter-day Saints referred to “mounds” and what some took to be the[Page 170]remains of Indian “forts,” small buildings, and other structures as evidence for pre-Columbian civilization. No Latter-day Saint writer mentioned large pre-Columbian “cities” until 1833 when W. W. Phelps published a brief report of the ruins of Otolum (Palenque) in “Central America.” That report described the ruins of the city as extending twenty miles (a claim later proved to be exaggerated) and the remains of a “palace” and other buildings with sculptured human figures. “The neighboring country for many leagues distant, contains remains of ancient labors of its people, bridges, reservoirs, monumental inscriptions, subterraneous edifices , &c.”16 It is reasonable to assume that Whitmer, who lived in Jackson County, Missouri, knew of this report. This article and subsequent discoveries by Stephens and Catherwood would have confirmed the Lord’s promise to the Book of Mormon witnesses. In this context, Lucy’s reference to “the cities that were built,” “the structure of their buildings,” and “their mode of warfare” could explain Joseph Smith’s later interest in Incidents of Travel in Central America.

[We will see if Roper can provide any evidence that Joseph ever took interest in Incidents, but Winchester and the anonymous author(s) in the Times and Seasons cited both Stephens (Mesoamerica) and Josiah Priest (North America) as evidence to fulfill what Whitmer recalled.]

[Continued in part 2, here.]

1. See Matthew Roper, “Losing the Remnant: The New Exclusivist ‘Movement’ and the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 87–124; Roper, “Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 15–85.
2. See David J. Whittaker, “Early Mormon Pamphleteering.” (PhD Diss., Brigham Young University, 1982); Whittaker, “East of Nauvoo: Benjamin Winchester and the Early Mormon Church,” Journal of Mormon History 21/2 (Fall 1995): 31–83; Stephen Fleming, “Discord in the City of Brotherly Love: The Story of Early Mormonism in Philadelphia,” Mormon Historical Studies 5/1 (Spring 1994): 3–28.
3. See Matthew Roper, Paul J. Fields, and Atul Nepal, “Joseph Smith, the Times and Seasons, and Central American Ruins,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture22/2 (2013): 84–97.
4. John Neville, The Lost City of Zarahemla: From Iowa to Guatemala and Back Again (New York: Let Me Read It.com2015), Back cover. As will be discussed in this article, there is no evidence that Joseph Smith ever believed that the Book of Mormon city of Zarahemla was in Iowa.
5. Neville hijacks the term evils from the words of George Q. Cannon, “The Book of Mormon Geography,” Juvenile Instructor (1 January 1890), 18–19, and misapplies the apostle’s words to the Mesoamerican approach to Book of Mormon geography. This is misleading. Cannon explained why the Church did not give official sanction to any map of Book of Mormon lands and noted that official endorsement of individual opinions might lead to confusion by giving them a stamp of approval that was not intended. No official map was to be adopted, while careful individual study Book of Mormon geography was encouraged. Neville complains that while the Church has no official position on the matter, that policy is undermined by artwork that depicts the Book of Mormon in a Mesoamerican setting (191). Ideas and images from Mesoamerica have certainly influenced Book of Mormon art, but this hardly constitutes official endorsement of any map. Under the old hemispheric view, Latter-day Saints assumed that Mesoamerica was always at least a part of the land spoken of in the Book of Mormon, so one can understand why it was commonly represented. Art can be a powerful influence, but it may or may not reflect accurate history and is not always intended to. More importantly, the question of which artwork is used in Church settings likely has more to do with the artist’s perspective and what appeals to the viewer than any attempt by Church leaders to sponsor geographical theories. In any case, I am not aware of any Church policy that would discourage or prohibit LDS artists from portraying North American Mound Builder settings. The artist, of course, cannot expect that his work will be accepted or appreciated. The key factor will always be its quality and the artist’s ability to influence the viewer. For an informative introduction to some of the challenges faced by artists see Anthony Sweat, “By the Gift and Power and Art.” In Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University and Deseret Book, 2015), 229-43; Richard Oman, “Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life: A Cross-Cultural Perspective in Contemporary Latter-day Saint Art,” BYU Studies 32/4 (Fall 1992): 5-34.
6. . In a post on his blog, “Book of Mormon Wars,” dated July 31, 2015, Neville stated that his goal is “to replace the article on titled `Book of Mormon and DNA Studies.’” He also wrote, “If it wasn’t on, this article could be on an anti-Mormon site.” According to Michael Otterson, the head of the Public Affairs Department, “Although highly competent LDS scholars prepared the initial drafts, they had extensive review by Church History staff and other scholars. Their review was followed by a rigorous reading for accuracy and balance by the Twelve before approval by the First Presidency.”
7. For a previous discussion of this issue see Roper, “Joseph Smith, Revelation and Book of Mormon Geography,” 15–70.
8. Joseph Smith Jr. and F. G. Williams to John S. Carter, 13 April 1833, in Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, ed., The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents Volume 3: February 1833–March 1834 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2014), 63.
9. Emma Smith interview with Edmund Briggs, 1856, in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents1:530–31.
10. “Gold Bible, No. 3,” The Reflector (Palmyra, New York), 1 February 1831, 92, emphasis added.
11. McIntire Minute Book, 5 January 1841, in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith (Orem: Grandin Book Company, 1991), 61.
12. “The Prairies, Nauvoo, Joe Smith, the Temple, the Mormons, etc.,” The Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette 58 (15 September 1843): 3.
13. Mark L. McConkie, Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 99.
14. Lavina Fielding Anderson, ed., Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of the Lucy Mack Smith Family Memoir (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), 345. Spelling in the original.
15. David Whitmer Interview with James H. Hart, 21 August 1883, Deseret Evening News, 4 September 1883, in Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness(Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1991), 98. Emphasis added.
16. “Discovery of Ancient Ruins in Central America,” Evening and Morning Star, 1/9 (February 1833): [p. 71].


  1. Jonathan,

    A friend of mine (will at least I consider him a friend) who apparently knows Roper and Gardner wrote to me recently that you were "soon to be very soundly debunked." Instead I think it was Roper, in this instance, who was debunked.

    I reached pretty much the same conclusions you did about much of Roper's article. I say Kudo's, well done.

  2. I find it interesting that Mormon Interpreter refused to include your reviews of Roper's article that I included in a comment I made there.

  3. Er, I should have written "links to your reviews . . . "

  4. Yes, the Interpreter is trying to censor any reference to this blog. This is consistent with their editorial policy of promoting only one perspective on this issue, which is why I had to start this blog in the first place.