Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Interpreter, Mesoamerica, and the future

As I've noted, the Editors of the Interpreter strongly defend the Mesoamerican setting. So here's my take on that theory.

From what I've seen, the limited geography Mesoamerican theory originated in response to the realization that the completely hemispheric model advocated by Orson Pratt and others was not feasible. This left scholars with a more limited scope for the narrative. Then the question was, where to put it?

Pratt, Frederick G. Williams, and other pointed to a South American landing. The 1842 Times and Seasons articles pointed to Mesoamerica. Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Joseph Smith pointed to the New York Hill Cumorah. Each of these is incompatible with the others.

The Mesoamerican proponents elected to go with the 1842 Times and Seasons articles, partly because they thought Joseph wrote the articles, partly because they were the "latest" word on the topic, and partly because of the appeal of a massive ancient civilization in that area. That's completely understandable. For decades, I agreed with them.

But the Mesoamerican theory never adequately answered the questions about Cumorah or other statements Joseph made about a North American setting.* Proponents have reconciled the statements partly by claiming Joseph never received divine instruction or revelation about the topic and partly by creating a "hinterlands" approach that has Nephites migrating to North America from the Mesoamerican Core. Not a bad approach--it worked for me for a while--but it still assumes Joseph wrote or approved of the articles in the Times and Seasons.

In my view, the historical evidence uncovered since last December thanks largely to the Joseph Smith Papers project shows that Joseph never wrote or approved of those articles; instead, he opposed them to the extent that they placed named Book of Mormon sites in Mesoamerica. Joseph never made a single statement about the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica; every statement he made placed the narrative in North America.

Articles and statements by his contemporaries who considered Mesoamerican ruins as evidence of the Book of Mormon are not inconsistent with Joseph's own statements in the hinterlands sense; i.e., Book of Mormon people (mainly Jaredites and Lamanites, but possibly Nephites and Mulekites) migrated throughout North and South America, including in Mesoamerica. However, the physical evidence (DNA and archaeology) show a primarily Asian influence in Mesoamerica.

Even with the Times and Seasons gone as evidence of what Joseph thought, Mesoamericanists still think Mesoamerica is the place because of the "correspondences" between Mesoamerica and the text.

I think such correspondences are illusory.

As I've shown in an article previously posted to this blog, Mesoamerica doesn't even satisfy Sorenson's own filters or tests, as set forth in Mormon's Codex. Mesoamericanists cannot make their geography match the text; instead, they resort to adjusting the text to fit their geography. They deem physical features in the text as "metaphorical," they alter the plain meaning of terms (directions and animals) to suit their notions of a Mesoamerican influence, and they propose that upon arrival, Lehi's group encountered a massive, sophisticated civilization that completely absorbed the Nephites, leaving not a trace of their culture or even their DNA.

I find all of this dubious, at best.

As a former Mesoamericanist myself, dating from the time I was in seminary in High School and reinforced as a freshman at BYU where I took an honors class from John Sorenson, I have long known of the problems with the Mesoamerican theory. Earl Wunderli and others have done a good job pointing those out.

Many Mesoamericanists have told me to be patient; there are still many sites in Mesoamerica to be explored, and maybe in one of those we will finally find evidence that relates to the Book of Mormon. Well, maybe. But highly unlikely.

Instead, I have looked at the North American setting. I have evaluated numerous proposed geographies, but all have weaknesses comparable to those in Mesoamerica.

So I tried an experiment.

I put a pin in the map at the New York Cumorah. I put another pin in the map across from Nauvoo, thinking it is possible that D&C 125 refers to the Book of Mormon Zarahemla. Then I evaluated the text to see how the geography lines up.

Frankly, I was stunned at how perfectly it lines up. No more unexplained geographical features. No more re-translating the text with Mesoamerican concepts. No more metaphorical features. No more conflict with Joseph, Oliver, and David.

It's pretty cool.

Many former Mesoamericanists have done what I have done; i.e., they have evaluated the evidence and arguments, rejected the Mesoamerican setting, and refocused on North America. I think as more believers in the Book of Mormon go through the process I have, they will reach the same or similar conclusions to mine.

The question is whether the Mesoamericanists scholars will do the same.

I think many of them will if the Interpreter will give them a fair chance to read about an alternative to the Mesoamerican theory.

From what I know of the LDS scholars, most will embrace new evidence, especially when it reaffirms the truths Joseph taught and builds faith.

Up to this point, the main impediment to the North American setting has been ignorance.

I remain optimistic that the Interpreter will eventually open its pages to an alternative perspective that will educate its readers and enable them to make informed decisions about these issues.

*Dan Peterson lately has resorted to saying he believes in a North American setting because Mesoamerica is in North America, apparently oblivious that his own magazine has published articles distinguishing between North America and Mesoamerica. Hence the clarification here.


  1. Dan Peterson hasn't "resorted" to saying that. I've SAID it.

    When people assert that the events of the Book of Mormon occurred in North America, I agree -- because Mesoamerica is typically classified as North America. So, whether one is a Mesoamericanist or a "Heartlander," one believes the events of the Book of Mormon to have occurred within what is normally considered to be North America.

    Incidentally, Interpreter has no official position on the geography of the Book of Mormon. When and if something is submitted to us from a "Heartlander" advocate that, in our opinion, meets reasonable standards of scholarship, we'll seriously consider publishing it. Thus far, in our (fallible but considered) judgment, nothing of that quality has been submitted to us.

    Finally, by the way, "Interpreter" isn't just "purportedly" peer-reviewed. It follows peer-review procedures that are standard in academia, because they're based on the academic models that we know from our other work. Peer review isn't flawless, but it's a useful tool, and we use it. By contrast, whatever other merits your comments here might or might not have, they don't constitute academic peer review in the normal and accepted sense of that term.

  2. Given how concerned he is with peer review, I, for one, am eager to be informed about the peer review process behind Neville's own work, including his forthcoming work on Book of Mormon geography.