The Treason of the Geographers: Mythical “Mesoamerican” Conspiracy and the Book of Mormon
[I spent two lines on Zelph--less than Roper spends here. It was not a major factor in the book, and I saw no point in developing it. But I'm delighted that Roper brings it up here.]
There is, for example, no reference to Ken Godfrey’s essential study. The entry on Zelph in the published was not written by Joseph Smith and is not a contemporary account but is a hodgepodge of seven documents written by other men in Zion’s Camp who wrote about the event.
The issue again is not whether Joseph Smith received revelation on the warrior named Zelph (that much seems clear from the historical sources), but if what he learned in that revelation had anything to do with the geography of the scriptural text. On that question precise language of the Prophet would make a difference, but the historical sources do not allow us to determine with clarity his precise language, or if some of the language recorded in these secondary sources reflected Joseph’s own opinions or those of others.
[Usually Roper relies on Woodruff's journal with no problem, such as Woodruff's comments about the Stephens book. Woodruff's journal is the source for many of Joseph's recorded sermons. Now, only in the one case of Zelph, Woodruff's journal is unreliable because others recorded some different details. At least Roper concedes Joseph received revelation on Zelph, but parsing the different accounts to discredit all of them is nonsense. At any rate, I recommend people read the actual accounts and decide for themselves, which you can read in Cannon's piece without Godfrey's commentary.]
[Citing HC in a two-line comment is misleading? Because Roper has spent so much space on Zelph, it's disappointing and misleading that he hasn't cited Cannon. Roper is free to write his own books, but had I spent as much space on minor issues such as Zelph as he has here, the book would have been three times as long. At any rate, Roper will be glad to know I spend more time on Zelph in the second edition--but more time on Zelph means more problems for Mesoamerica.]
[I've been reading through the following paragraphs and came back here to let readers know the next few paragraphs have nothing to do with my book, so I'll line through them for you. Roper is merely venting here for who knows what reason. Apparently he's upset that more people don't read his articles. I have, and I've peer reviewed them--and he doesn't like that either, as you'll see later in his article.]
Neville’s work, now enthusiastically promoted by Rod Meldrum, continues this irresponsible and misleading pattern.
[Okay, so this is a hot button for Roper, but his assertion here is itself irresponsible and misleading, since he has had the chance since Feburary 2015 to discuss with me this and any other problems he has with the book. He simply refused, which I take as evidence he is less interested in scholarship than in having something to attack. BTW, he and the Interpreter both knew I was about to release a second edition of the book and they decided to review the first edition anyway. Roper could have saved himself a lot of aggravation by reviewing the second edition.]
[Sometimes one is best off letting an author's arguments destroy themselves, as Roper's do here, so I'll simply point out 1) that "any place" would not qualify unless it was plains and 2) Joseph had to have some basis for recognizing the plains of the Nephites. Roper insists Joseph was speculating because he didn't know anything about geography. I think Joseph made it clear he did know about geography (from Moroni's instruction), at least enough to recognize the Midwest as the plains of the Nephties he was already made familiar with, back in New York and Pennsylvania when he was obtaining and translating the text and had never visited plains before. Roper thinks Joseph sent his wife pure speculation, albeit unqualified as such. I think he simply told her what he recognized. (I also think he used the phrase because she knew what he had described to her about the Nephites way back in Pennsylvania, but there is no hard evidence of that so I didn't put it in the book.) Roper thinks picking up skulls and bones in Ohio and Indiana is proof of the divine authenticity of a history that took place in Mesoamerica. I think it's proof of the divine authenticity of a history that took place in Ohio and Indiana--and I suspect that's what Joseph intended and Emma thought when she read the letter. Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, of course, but the only rational interpretation of this letter is how Emma would understand it.]
Early Latter-day Saints viewed native Americans in North and South America as descendants of the seed of Nephi and his brethren, so the words “plains of the Nephites” are useless as a clue to external Book of Mormon geography.
[I have to ask for a citation here. I would agree that some early LDS may have thought this, but the only ones specifically identified as Lamanites were the Indian tribes in the Midwest. At the very least, I would think Roper would recognize that not every place in the Americas can be described as "plains," so that's a limiting factor based purely on geography (or, more precisely, topography).]
Perhaps they were not intended to be. It makes more sense to read Joseph’s use of “Nephite” in the letter as a cultural term rather than a geographical clue to the text.
["It makes more sense" is not a coherent argument. Roper's argument only "makes more sense" if you're trying to obscure the ordinary meaning of the language--how Joseph and Emma would understand it--in order to support a Mesoamerican geography. "Plains of the Nephites" differentiates the plains they just crossed from the generic "plains" that Roper tries to read into the letter. Joseph could have simply written "plains" and been done with it. He qualified it with "of the Nephites" for some reason that Emma would understand. At this point, Emma had not crossed the plains. She was back in Kirtland. I infer that Joseph used this description knowing what Emma knew about the Nephites from what they had discussed previously, and it had nothing to do with a "cultural term."]
[I just read ahead again. Feel free to read Roper's material, but I lined it out here because it's unrelated to the book he's supposedly reviewing and it has nothing to do with what Emma would have understood from this letter, which is really the only question to address.]
[The rest of this appears to be copied from some of Roper's other papers. I've previously commented on Roper's points here if anyone is interested, but this is quite ancillary to the book, so I lined it out here. I spent just two sentences on Manti in the book, but I have a lot more of it coming soon in Moroni's America. Maybe Roper can copy this section to his review of that book.]
[Is Roper referring to Provo or Nicaea? I recall another group trying to sort out doctrine by discussion and debate and then voting on it...]
Differences of opinions were expressed. Some argued that Zarahemla was in South America; others thought it might have been in Honduras. The news report suggests that some had strongly held opinions about this and other geographical matters and argued forcefully for their respective positions. According to the report:
[The key point here is Pres. Smith said "if it could not be located." Wise counsel. And it's true, Mesoamericanists cannot locate Zarahemla. But why does that mean we cannot consult the D&C for guidance on the question? Just to see if it works out and fits a geography that also happens to accommodate the Hill Cumorah in New York and every statement that can be directly tied to Joseph Smith? Hint: because it does work out, and that means Zarahemla is not in Mesoamerica.]
[Okay, I don't see a citation to the book here, so I'm wondering what Roper is doing other than 1) conflating different approaches to North American geography and 2) attacking straw men. Roper's argument isn't even rational. One of the main reasons I wrote the book was to refocus attention on the Book of Mormon and its teachings. I fully agree with President Smith's counsel.]
In October 1929, Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency said:
Recently, some Latter-day Saints, finding a dearth of evidence for a revelation on Book of Mormon geography, have tried to squeeze one from Section 125 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
[This is an odd way to characterize searching the scriptures. Besides, I've seen more than a few books and articles--including the articles Roper cites in this paper--that search the scriptures regarding Book of Mormon geography. Roper seems to be arguing we have too much revelation, or at least just enough; we certainly don't need more, apparently. And yet, Mesoamerican proponents not only squeeze the text; they regularly modify the text to fit their preferred geography with terms such as "headwaters" and "narrow strip of mountainous wilderness," not to mention advocating that the north and south seas are merely metaphors not to be taken literally.]
This revelation invited the Saints to gather at appointed locations, including settlements in Iowa, where they might build up stakes of Zion. “And let them build up a city unto my name upon the land opposite the city of Nauvoo, and let the name of Zarahemla be named upon it” (D&C 125:31). The revelation says nothing about where the ancient Nephite city of Zarahemla was located, but Neville writes as if he really wished that it had (330, 332).
[I wish it had been more definitive, sure, one way or the other. I just can't make sense of rejecting a plausible interpretation on the sole grounds that it contradicts one's preferred geography.]
He suggests that the revelation may have been “the Lord’s warning to Joseph about Winchester’s imminent promulgation of a Mesoamerican approach to promoting the Book of Mormon” (143, note 114). He claims that the Zarahemla editorials were “a direct challenge to the 1841 revelation in Section 125 about Zarahemla” (180). It is unclear how a Mesoamerican interpretation of Book of Mormon geography could directly challenge something that the revelation does not mention.
[Uh, it does mention Zarahemla in Iowa. If that's not a direct challenge to Mesoamerican geography, I don't know what is.]
[The existence of Roper's article remains the case; the validity of his argument does not.]
As a secondary argument I had cited several journal entries that apparently called the Iowa settlement “Zarahemla” before the revelation in Section 125 was given. Based upon the information available to me at that time, this seemed a valid secondary argument. In May 2013 I learned of several apparent anomalies in those sources that suggest these entries, at least the parts mentioning Zarahemla, were likely written later than the dates had suggested to me. I hope at some point in the future to examine the originals myself and revisit the matter. For the present I will assume those sources do not support my earlier argument.
[That's an excellent assumption. I have examined the originals and they verify that D&C 125 was the first recorded reference to Zarahemla in Iowa, across from Nauvoo. No one is saying that is determinative, but this is the only verse I'm aware of for which a plausible interpretation is rejected because it contradicts someone's preferred geography. I say, test the verse as a geographical clue and see what happens.]
Still, we lack certain specifics on how the revelation was received. Did Joseph Smith and his brethren discuss the matter beforehand? Had they previously considered the name Zarahemla as a possible designation and then submitted it to the Lord for confirmation? The name itself need not have been be a geographical clue to have hold significance.
[True, we don't have much historical background on the name; in fact, I know of none. The revelation just appears in the record. For that matter, it's a curious section to have been canonized. Apart from the reference to Zarahemla, what value does it have today? It's also interesting that the Reorganized Church (Community of Christ) never canonized this section.]
[Not bad speculation, but the reality contradicts the premise. Zarahemla and Manti both failed as communities and stakes. IIRC, the Zarahemla stake was disbanded within a year or two of the revelation. Manti never materialized. Both designations make more sense as Book of Mormon sites than as a symbol of modern strength. That said, it is interesting that Joseph purchased far more land in Iowa than in Illinois. And there are historical records regarding a temple to be built across the river from Nauvoo, in line with the Nauvoo temple.]
[Unaware? Hmmm... My focus was on Winchester, not an overview of Church history. This seems to be Roper's most consistent complaint; i.e., that I didn't spend more time on issues and topics that are important to him. Every book is a compromise of competing material and priorities.]
In 1837 Parley P. Pratt published It was Pratt’s “greatest theological contribution as a Latter-day Saint, … a work that served the church as its most powerful proselytizing tool — after the Book of Mormon — for more than a century.” “For the first few years of the Church’s existence, little besides the Book of Mormon could ground Mormon theology or expound doctrine, and early Latter-day Saints seldom used the Book of Mormon in that regard.” In fact, during this early period of Church history, “next to the Book of Mormon itself, Pratt’s book soon became the principal vehicle presenting Mormonism , which has been described as “the most important of all the non-canonical LDS books” In 1839 Pratt published a second edition, revised and enlarged, which included an expanded section on the Book of Mormon. Givens and Grow note that this pamphlet, which “remained among the most widely read Mormon works for several decades after his death,” also “proved exceptionally effective as a missionary tool. … Pratt’s writings, which deeply influenced other Mormon authors, particularly his equally prolific younger brother Orson, not only helped convert thousands to Mormonism but also shaped the Mormon theological system.”to the Latter-day Saint faithful and the general public alike.” “But for narrative exposition, one that aspired to lay out in readable format the essence of Mormonism for member and non-Mormon alike, had no peer and, for any decades, little competition.”
The first publications Benjamin Winchester produced are two small pamphlets from 1840.
[These were the first he produced in the sense of publishing them himself, but they were not the first he produced in the sense of writing and having his material published. He had an article published in the first Times and Seasons in 1839, for example.]
Neither addresses the question of Book of Mormon geography. The first of these, , is unremarkable. The second, , had more lasting significance as a response to the Spalding theory and the information it provides on Doctor Philastus Hurlbut whom Winchester knew and claimed as a relative.
[The Spaulding theory is directly relevant to Book of Mormon geography. I expect Roper to discuss this more below, but since it contradicts his assertion above, maybe he'll drop it. Spaulding supposedly wrote an account of Romans who landed in eastern North America and interacted with the Indian tribes there. The sole reason it was relevant to the Book of Mormon was this North American setting. If the Book of Mormon actually took place in Mesoamerica, the Spaulding theory would be a nullity from the outset. Winchester could have dismissed it with a sentence or two instead of writing an entire booklet about it.]
In 1841, while in Philadelphia, Winchester published a short-lived periodical entitled the Some of the articles that appeared there were subsequently reprinted in other Latter-day Saint periodicals such as the . It also was greatly influenced by earlier Latter-day Saint publications:. This periodical commenced in January 1841 and continued until the June 15, 1841, issue, after which it was discontinued. “Generally the treats a broad range of doctrinal subjects. The ideas themselves were not new to the Mormon printed record, but their defense marshaled a nearly comprehensive collection of biblical citations and examples, many appearing in a Latter-day Saint publication for the first time.”
[I don't recall writing that this was the primary motive, and since Roper doesn't cite a page I can't find it right now. What I recall--and what's in the second edition--is that Winchester was a zealous missionary who thought linking the Book of Mormon to popular works on Mesoamerican ruins would attract interest in the Book and promote missionary work. He also sought to combat the Spaulding theory, which relied on a North American setting. The only sense in which Winchester had a limited Mesoamerican geography was in his linking the Stephens' ruins to specific Book of Mormon cities, namely Zarahemla.]
Winchester summarized the Book of Mormon account in two articles, published in March 1841:
[I recall mentioning in the book that Winchester cited Josiah Priest, who was definitely a North American guy. But his emphasis, particularly in the March Gospel Reflector, was Mesoamerica.]
This theory placed events in the narrative throughout North and South America. Inherent in the hemispheric model is the obvious assumption that Central America was the narrow neck of land with the dividing line between the land northward and southward at the Isthmus of Darien in Panama. So the idea of Central America as a setting for at least some events described in the Book of Mormon was always a basic element of the old hemispheric theory. It was not an 1841 innovation of Winchester as Neville contends.
[I looked ahead here and didn't see where Roper cites someone earlier than Winchester who cited books by explorers in Mesoamerica the way he did in March 1841. It is the link to specific sites, not a generalized hemispheric geography, that is the point of the 1842 Times and Seasons articles.]
[In the second edition, I have a table comparing Pratt's pamphlet to the Wentworth letter so readers can see exactly what Joseph kept and what he omitted. This information is also available in the Joseph Smith papers.]
[No problem with any of this.]
[This begs the question of who wrote the Times and Seasons articles.]
He never linked those ruins to any city named in Mormon’s account. Winchester’s article mentioned the discovery of Otolum (Palenque) to prove “that America has been inhabited by an enlightened people, far in advance of the savage state of the red men of the forest.” Earlier writers had been making that argument long before 1841.
[Roper stops the Pratt quotation here to avoid showing his readers how Pratt relied on evidence from North America. Here is the next paragraph from Pratt that Roper omits:
Again, we are told that no cows or oxen were here when Europeans first came to the country. I would ask what the wild buffalo are, if they are not the cattle of the ancient inhabitants? I would ask how horse tracks came to be imbedded [sic] in the petrified rock of Kentucky, without a horse to make them? And if no race of animals could become extinct, which once existed here, I would ask Mr. Peck either to produce a living mammoth, or annihilate his bones. But, perhaps, the reverend gentleman would say that those bones, too, were the works of Nature, and that the huge animal they seem to represent never existed.]
On the merits, Peck wrote before Squiers and Davis conducted their survey of the extensive earthworks in the Midwest. Even today (2015) archaeologists are uncovering significant finds throughout the Midwest, including ancient smelting, celestial alignments, and the Great Hopewell Road, that were unknown in the 1830s.]
This rebuttal suggests that by 1833 Mormon arguments for pre-Columbian civilization were expanding to include evidence from Central America as well as the North American Midwest. Just months before the encounter, the February 1833 issue of the published a report of the ruined city of Palenque. [Actually, Peten.] The report cited an extract from the Pratt’s reference to statues, sculptures, monuments, and engravings is consistent with the content of that report and suggests he was familiar with the article in the and used it to supplement his rebuttal to Peck’s claim that there were no ruined pre-Columbian cities in America.describing “a city and its suburbs” with buildings and “statues of stone” and “monumental inscriptions” and other evidence of civilization “prior to the fourteenth century.” The editor, W. W. Phelps, considered it “good testimony” for the Book of Mormon. He also suggested that “should ruins of many cities be discovered, it would be no more than a confirmation of what was once on this land of the Lord.”
[Exactly my point.]
[Roper's ellipses omit a key point of the anti-Mormon attack; i.e., why the critic thought Lehi's people were so advanced. The critic wrote this: "The Mormons affirm, 'That the present Indians, are a part of the half tribe of Joseph, and that they sailed to this country across the Atlantic Ocean; being furnished with a compass by the hand of God.' We must of course presume that they were furnished also with a knowledge of navigation, reading, writing, &c."]
[It's easy to see why Roper omitted this passage--the critic made some errors, such as misspelling names, but he got the essentials right. Of course, for a Mesoamericanist such as Roper, an affirmation by the Mormons in 1840 that Lehi sailed "to this country across the Atlantic Ocean" is devastating.]
[All of this demonstrates the attacks on the Book of Mormon based on its North American setting, which was motivation for Pratt and others, including Winchester, to direct attention to Mesoamerica instead. All of this supports my thesis.]
[IIRC, Stephens books weren't published until June or July 1841.]
[As I mention in the book, Winchester had been formally silenced by the Quorum of the Twelve in May 1842. The notice was published in the Times and Seasons. He was restored, I think in July, but still on very thin ice.]
, published in 1843, has an entire chapter on the Book of Mormon. Here was an excellent opportunity to disseminate his views, but the chapter is little more than a reworking of his 1841 writings with a few minor changes.
[These "minor changes" are significant. He is more vague in 1843, which one would expect if he was reprimanded for the Zarahemla article. Actually, references to Mesoamerica post-Oct 1, 1842, are all vague, which is consistent 1) with a rejection by Joseph of specifically identifying cities such as Zarahemla in Mesoamerican and 2) with a missionary-minded hinterlands approach (i.e., that descendants of the Book of Mormon people who lived in North America eventually migrated throughout the continent. First, the Jaredites. Later, the Lamanites.]
In 1841, he wrote that Lehi landed “somewhere on the western coast of South America.” In 1843 he wrote ambiguously that they “safely landed upon this land.” His 1843 geographical perspective, like that in 1841, is still broad and hemispheric. He mentioned Central American discoveries in both his 1841 and 1843 writings, but in 1841 he could only quote from the older less reliable reports about Otolum, not from Stephens and Catherwood’s more recent and accurate volumes. In 1843 he still wrote vaguely of “the remains of these cities and temples, [that] are to be seen in Central America, and elsewhere, in both the north and South parts of the continent; the discovery of which has excited the curiosity and astonishment of the learned so much of late.” The ruins were evidence for civilization, but he drew no correlation between them and specific Book of Mormon cities. His failure to mention Stephens or Catherwood by name or reference any actual details from their 1841 and 1843 books, not even so much as a page number, suggests only superficial knowledge, and that even by 1843, Winchester’s geographical conceptions of the Book of Mormon had not changed much since 1841. The 1842 report of the Boston lecture shows that he had heard of their discoveries, but never made much use of them if his writings are any indication. Neville, in fact, presents no evidence that Winchester owned or even so much as read Stephens and Catherwood.
[This is a valid point, which I also made in the book: anyone could have owned any book, but we have limited evidence of who owned what book. The only person who we know owned the Priest book was Winchester, for example. (Well, I found a copy owned by Wilford Woodruff, which I explain in my second edition). But the only evidence we have of anyone reading the Stephens books is when Wilford Woodruff mentions in his journal that he read them. Roper will cite Joseph's letter to Bernhisel, but we don't know who wrote it and there is no corroborating evidence that Joseph ever read or discussed the books, all a topic I discuss at length in the second edition. IMO, the evidence shows that letter is a pro-forma thank you note.]
Yet this is the man who we are to believe wrote the unsigned 1842 editorials on Central America in the ! For the purported mastermind of the “Mesoamerican” idea of Book of Mormon geography, that seems odd to say the least. The evidence from Winchester’s known writings strongly weigh against such a theory.
doesn't like my comments, which are on my blog (http://bookofmormonwars.blogspot.com/). But he's mischaracterized that, as well. It started out as my online notes and thoughts that I could access from anywhere. Then some people started reading it and sharing it. Now it's become far more than I ever expected. But never once have I criticized anyone, let alone attacked anyone. I apologize right now if I have done that, as it's not my intent, but I can't control how people take criticism of their work. I focus on the merits of what people write. The names of the authors are immaterial, but if I delete the names, no one knows to whom I'm referring. Roper apparently doesn't like what I've written, but I'm still more than willing to sit down and talk through any problems he has. I harbor no bad feelings toward anyone in this debate, and I think what unites us is far more important than what divides us.