Moroni and Cumorah
Often the first protest directed at the Malay Hypothesis is the issue of Cumorah, New York, and the irreconcilable distances and settings it would require to get the plates from Asia to New York. Proponents of the Tehuantepec (and other) limited geography theories have long made the case that the hill in New York never was the Hill Cumorah referenced in the Book of Mormon, and was named “Cumorah” ex post facto by exuberant early latter-day saints.52 Furthermore, a careful reading of Mormon 6:6 indicates that the plates of Mormon—the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated—were never buried in the hill Cumorah at all; quite the opposite: the source materials (large plates of Nephi, etc) were buried in Cumorah, and Mormon gave to Moroni the few remaining plates from Mormon to complete. The deposit location and ultimate fate of these plates—which would have included the plates of Mormon—is never mentioned in the Book of Mormon text, other than that they were “sealed up.” John Sorenson, an advocate of the Tehuantepec model, suggests that Moroni made the trip from Mexico to New York in the 21 years between Mormon 8:6 and Moroni 10:1, and left them in the hill where Joseph Smith found them centuries later.
Dr. Olsen provides a speculative narrative for the fate and travels of Moroni that, if true, would provide a fascinating interpretation of existing external evidence.53 His conjecture proposes that Moroni, in hopes of evading the Lamanite warriors, traveled northward into what would now be Burma. Perhaps he found others—Nephite exiles, peaceful Lamanites, or completely separate groups—and told them of his father’s work, of the Nephite chronicles, and of the prophecies of restoration he had written in his book of gold. These stories may have persisted in the region until they came to be adopted into folklore of the Karen people who would later arrive into Burma from southern China around 500 A.D.54
Eventually Moroni, perhaps led by God as Nephi was, might have been compelled to set sail into the Bay of Bengal. Archaeological and DNA evidence suggests that between 200 BC and 500 AD, migrations were occurring between Southeast Asia and the east African islands of Madagascar.55 Additionally, linguistic evidence indicates that Malagasy (the language of Madagascar) is related to the Malayo-Polynesian family of languages,56 thus providing even more evidence of migration to Madagascar from the Malay Archipelago.57 Moroni may have been among these migrants after his escape from Cumorah. Incidentally, just off the northwestern coast of Madagascar lies a tiny country named “Comoros”—with a capital known as “Moroni”.58
After some time in Comoros, perhaps with others, or perhaps alone, Moroni may have again set sail, this time on a more ambitious journey, one that may have taken him around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Atlantic, across the equator, and landed him on the east coast of America, where he could have been led to bury the plates in the hill where Joseph Smith eventually would obtain them.
A transoceanic trip of this magnitude may seem impossible, but it is no more incredulous than the alternative stories of Lehites, Mulekites and Jaredites crossing comparable distances to arrive in America. The primary difference between the two would be centuries of seafaring experience and knowhow to Moroni’s advantage. Note that this route is very similar to the transatlantic Lehite route required by the Heartland geography theory, the plausibility of which was recently bolstered by the experience of the 2010 Phoenician Ship Expedition.59
Alternatively, the relocation of the plates of Mormon into the New York hill could have been instigated by any number of divinely-aided means, from the resurrected Moroni posthumously moving them, to the Three Nephites helping out somehow, to any other number of miraculous means akin to those that are inextricable from the contents of Book of Mormon and the narrative of its coming forth.
One of the major objections to the Malay Hypothesis, and to any other non-American placement of Book of Mormon geography, is that countless LDS Church leaders and authorities have asserted that the American continent is the Book of Mormon’s promised land, that America is where the Book of Mormon lands are “supposed” to be, and that the testimony of Jesus furnished by the Book of Mormon belongs to the New World. Church leaders have indicated that the hill in upstate New York is in very fact the Hill Ramah/Cumorah of the Book of Mormon’s great last battles.60 The introduction of the official Church edition states unequivocally that it is a “record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas.”61 Apostles have identified those of native American descent as Lamanites.62 Thomas Marsh explained how Moroni was hunted down and killed by a band of Indians.63 Joseph Smith told Zion’s Camp that a skeleton found in Illinois was once none other than “Zelph, the white Lamanite,” in addition to having related to his family “the most amusing recitals that could be imagined” describing “the ancient inhabitants of this continent,” presumably referring to the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon.64
The key to properly facing all these issues—and this cannot be emphasized enough—is understanding that these issues are external to the Book of Mormon text itself. The Church has assured its members that all speakers or authors, regardless of their priesthood or leadership positions, are responsible for and accountable to their own statements,65 and that their statements should be weighed against the standard works to assess their credibility.66 The Malay Hypothesis does not purport to be a proposal to accommodate past leaders’ statements or mainstream assumptions about the Book of Mormon. Rather, it purports to be a model in which to consider the text per se, and makes no appeal to extratextual sources to construct its model. Readers and students who uphold a sacrosanct relationship between the contents Book of Mormon and the statements or beliefs of modern religious authorities will understandably feel compelled to discredit the Malay Hypothesis and all other non-traditional theories.
The story of Vincenzo Di Francesca, who discovered and accepted the Book of Mormon virtually in a vacuum—with no institutional strings attached—provides a real instance in which we can consider how the Book of Mormon can be received completely on its own terms.67 To Di Francesca’s independent reading of the Book of Mormon text, without any preface, tradition, or institutional history to frame the Book of Mormon text, all of these problematic statements would be complete non-issues. The degree to which readers consider the text of the Book of Mormon wedded to the environment and organization from which it came forth will largely determine the extent of their reluctance or eagerness to consider the viability of non-American geography models for the Book of Mormon.
The one external statement that probably carries the most weight in this matter is one that is included in nearly all official explanations of the origins of the Book of Mormon and is said to have come from the mouth of Moroni himself, who, in resurrected form, told Joseph Smith that the Book of Mormon contains an “account of the former inhabitants of this continent.”
The source of this statement is a manuscript written by James Mulholland at the dictation of Joseph Smith in 1838.68 Incidentally, this same manuscript—and even the same paragraph—misidentifies the angel Moroni as “Nephi,” and is marked with an asterisk stating that it is “evidently a clerical error.” This error was perpetuated in the Nauvoo periodical Times and Seasons 69 and the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price 70 before it was corrected to “Moroni.”
There is no direct evidence to indicate that the words “of this continent” are likewise erroneous, but the clear presence of neighboring errors should encourage some caution in using this statement as a non-negotiable hinge attaching the Book of Mormon lands to the Americas.
Assuming that Mulholland’s transcript is nevertheless correct, Dr. Olsen emphasizes Moroni’s words which immediately follow the reference to America: “the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from whence they sprang.” Traditional readings of these words assume the “source from whence they sprang” to be Jerusalem and Mesopotamia, but taken in another light, this could very well be understood as Asia and the Pacific, which not only corresponds more closely with current scientific consensus regarding the origins of early American migrants, but is also compatible with the Malay Hypothesis’ considerations of multiple lands of promise, and the continual scattering and expansion of Nephite and Lamanite people from their previous lands of promise.
Zion and The Promised Land
New York Cumorah and traditional LDS notions aside, there are some issues that are grounded in the Book of Mormon text that would challenge any non-American setting for the Book of Mormon. These issues are the prophecies that seem to indicate that the United States of America is central to the latter-day promised land, the modern Zion, and the New Jerusalem.
The Book of Mormon communicates that Lehi would be led to “a land of promise” that is “choice above all other lands;”71 that “a man among the Gentiles,”72 presumably Christopher Columbus, would reach the “seed of [Nephi’s] brethren, who were in the promised land;” that “this land… shall be kept from all other nations;”73 that “this land shall be a land of liberty unto the Gentiles,” with “no kings upon the land;”74 that “they should be established in this land, and be set up as a free people;”75 and that “a New Jerusalem should be built up upon this land.”76
These passages are often cited by those promoting ethnocentric interpretations designating the United States exclusively as the “choice land.” Rodney Meldrum and his FIRM Foundation have gone to great lengths to conclude that the Book of Mormon’s references to any promised land point unambiguously to the United States of America.77 Meldrum further cites 2 Nephi 1:5 to demonstrate that the land Lehi arrived upon was the “land of promise” which he had “obtained.” However, a closer inspection of this verse shows that Lehi stated that his family “obtained a land of promise.”78 The use of this indefinite article is significant in light of the aforementioned plurality of promised lands noted in the Book of Mormon.
Furthermore, uncompromisingly strict interpretations of these passages disqualifies even the United States as the land of promise. If the “man among the Gentiles” is in fact Columbus, the “promised land” designation would have to extend to the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands.79 Also, the United States was ultimately not “kept from all other nations.”80 African slaves—Gentiles in their own right—would most certainly not describe their relocation to America as becoming “a free people”81 in “a land of liberty”—a land which, parenthetically, was ruled by European kings for centuries prior to 1776.82 And, despite the current construction of an LDS temple not even ten miles from the Temple Lot in Independence Missouri,83 a “New Jerusalem” is still conspicuously absent from the United States.
There are, of course, suitable rebuttals for each of these counterpoints. These rebuttals do, however, require the introduction of a more liberal, allegorical, or broad interpretation of the prophecies in the Book of Mormon. Defenders of Mesoamerican geography models have long advocated generalized explanations for these passages, considering the history of suffering and oppression of the countries in the most immediate regions they propose for the Book of Mormon setting.84 The degree to which liberal interpretations are applied to these prophetic statements will largely be influenced by the presuppositions and confirmation bias of the interpreter. Preferences for the promised land being within the the political boundaries of the United States, or covering all of North America, or the greater Americas, or a wide array of promised lands ranging from Israel, through Asia, into the Pacific and the Americas, can all be accommodated through creative readings, American traditions and references to “this land” notwithstanding.
Historically speaking, Latter-day saints are actually quite accustomed to reinventing their definition of Zion. The latter-day gathering of Israel has at various times been focused around Kirtland, Missouri, Illinois, Utah, and even the symbol of “stakes” of Zion’s tent, coupled with the metaphor: “this is Zion—the pure in heart.”85 Despite what Meldrum might insist on, the prophecies regarding the promised lands and their direct corollaries to the United States, while certainly ingrained firmly in the latter-day zeitgeist, are not unambiguously substantiated by an objective reading of the Book of Mormon text.
Nephi’s prophecies about “his seed” in contrast to “the seed of his brethren” are also problematic to traditional readings. These statements are generally understood to be the future Nephites and Lamanites, and their latter-day remnants. The first obstacle to this notion is that Nephi’s “brethren” would have also included Jacob and Joseph, whose early descendants were collectively referred to as “Nephites.”86 The other problem is that during the Zionist utopia described in 4th Nephi, there were no distinctions based on lineage, and the entire population was unified.87 The Nephite and Lamanite factions that emerge after that period distinguish themselves by belief and demeanor, not by blood heritage.88 This further necessitates liberal interpretations of who the modern Lamanites are relative to Laman and Lemuel as well as to the Lamanite people described in the pages leading up to 4th Nephi.
Fitting these prophecies into the Malay Hypothesis does admittedly require unconventional reinterpretations of the text along with a vast departure from traditional teachings. But to its advantage, it does allow for the possibility of many promised lands throughout the earth, and does not necessarily exclude America from these promises. Again, The degree to which these interpretations are determined to be plausible will be largely influenced by the cultural expectations and presuppositions of the reader.
To Be Continued…
Stay tuned for the remaining post, in which the following topics will be addressed:
- Part IV
- Concluding Observations
- Ancient evidence for the Book of Mormon
- Epilogue to the Legend of the Lost Book of Gold