Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a new authoritative statement from church leaders on Book of Mormon geography. As has been reported elsewhere (here and here), the new entry in the Gospel Topics section “Book of Mormon Geography” states,

The Church takes no position on the specific geographic location of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas. Church members are asked not to teach theories about Book of Mormon geography in Church settings but to focus instead on the Book of Mormon’s teachings and testimony of Jesus Christ and His gospel.

“Book of Mormon Geography” Gospel Topics entry

The entry goes on to note that since the church’s founding members and leaders have expressed “numerous opinions” on where Book of Mormon events took place. It cites an 1834 statement by Joseph Smith assigning North American lands to the Book of Mormon, and a later 1842 church newspaper article suggesting Central American ruins were remnants of Book of Mormon civilizations. The statement indicates that members have also attributed Book of Mormon lands to South America. The entry reiterates, “Although Church members continue to discuss such theories today, the Church takes no position on the geography of the Book of Mormon except that the events it describes took place in the Americas.”

As blogger Churchistrue mentioned in a post at Wheat and Tares last summer, the most common Book of Mormon geography theories today are hemispheric (encompassing North, Central, and South America), Mesoamerican, and North American (often called the Heartland theory). [1] The website Book of Mormon Central has a more in-depth summary of the historical origin of these different viewpoints.

In the last century, the hemispheric model has become difficult to maintain in the face of scientific discoveries about the peopling of the Americas. In 2006, church leaders changed introductory language to the Book of Mormon. Instead of Lamanites being the “principal ancestors of the American Indians,” they were “among the ancestors of the American Indians.” A Gospel Topics essay released in January 2014, “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies,” states,

“The evidence assembled to date suggests that the majority of Native Americans carry largely Asian DNA.3 Scientists theorize that in an era that predated Book of Mormon accounts, a relatively small group of people migrated from northeast Asia to the Americas by way of a land bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska.4 These people, scientists say, spread rapidly to fill North and South America and were likely the primary ancestors of modern American Indians.5

“Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” Gospel Topics Essay

In recent years, arguments about Book of Mormon geography have gotten heated, particularly between proponents of Mesoamerican and Heartland models (though some have tried to merge the two). The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), a major Mormon apologetic powerhouse established in 1979, unabashedly promoted Mesoamerican theories for Book of Mormon geography. Modern apologist organizations like FairMormon, Book of Mormon Central, and the Interpreter Foundation have also cited Mesoamerican evidence for the Book of Mormon. The FIRM Foundation (Foundation for Indigenous Research and Mormonism), which sponsors an annual International Book of Mormon Evidence Conference, espouses the Heartland theory. (Interestingly, an article at their site argues Mesoamerican theories originated from an 1842 conspiracy.)

Some of the Heartland persuasion recently accused the Church History Department of expressing “a preference against” the Heartland model in the first volume of the new official church history, Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days. Proponents of the Heartland model often point to early statements by Joseph Smith, like the 1834 letter cited in the “Book of Mormon Geography” entry, as revelatory proof of a North American setting for the Book of Mormon. Interestingly, the Church seems to be suggesting in its new Gospel Topics entry that positions of early leaders, including Joseph Smith himself, were merely opinion, not authoritative statements.

Accessibility

It should be noted that this entry seems to only be available in a newer version of the Gospel Topics section accessible in the Gospel Library app and directly via the link cited above. Navigating the menus from the home page of LDS.org will only take you to an older version of Gospel Topics, pictured below. The new section “Book of Mormon Geography” is not one of the available options in this older version.[2]

The “B” section in the old version of Gospel Topics currently on LDS.org. The new “Book of Mormon Geography” entry is not listed.

Cultural Identity

Something often overlooked in these Book of Mormon geography debates are the implications for those who have been told the Book of Mormon is the story of their ancestors. Over the last two centuries, indigenous people throughout North, Central and South America and the Pacific Islands have been told they are Lamanites or descendants of the Nephite shipbuilder Hagoth (Alma 63:5).[3] As explained in the “Lamanite Identity” Church History topic entry, “After receiving the gospel, converts in these regions embraced the way the Book of Mormon connected them with a lost heritage and a promised future, especially in contrast to the difficult, sometimes oppressive conditions under which they lived.”

In 2008 a college student produced a documentary titled In Laman’s Terms: Looking at Lamanite Identity. From the film’s description at the Culture Unplugged website, “Angelo Baca, a Navajo and Hopi filmmaker, takes a personal journey exploring the influences of the Mormon culture upon his own and what the definition of a Lamanite really means from individuals from within the church as well as outside of it.” What struck me during the film was a statement by Angelo Baca’s mother, Ida Yellowman.

[43:44] I thought at one time the Native Americans were the Lamanites. That’s all it was. All of the sudden today there’s Polynesians, there’s Hispanics, some I don’t even know what they are. So are we more confused today and not sure who we are? All of a sudden everyone’s a Lamanite because everybody’s dark skin?

In Laman’s Terms: Looking at Lamanite Identity

Lamanite identity itself is a double-edged sword. A recent collection of essays, Decolonizing Mormonism: Approaching a Postcolonial Zion, has gathered several perspectives on the effects of Mormonism on indigenous lives and cultures. In “This is the Place!” Elise Boxer notes, “Indigenous peoples occupy an interesting space in the LDS Church in which we are a fallen and promised people simultaneously” (p. 92).

The “Lamanite Identity” Church History topic entry admits this dichotomy.

Book of Mormon promises for the Lamanites motivated early efforts to bridge cultural gaps between Saints with European ancestry and Saints, or prospective converts, with Native American ancestry…

Unfortunately, some Church members have viewed groups they considered to be Lamanites with condescension or contempt, particularly in times of conflict.13 Consequently, some members of the same groups that embraced Lamanite identity have come to feel conflicted about the way this heritage is sometimes discussed in the Church.

“Lamanite Identity,” Church History Topics entry

In Decolonizing Mormonism, Gina Colvin wrote of her experience as a
Māori member of the church in New Zealand.

The fact that Mormonism saw my ancestry and weaved into its theology offered me a sense of place and even confidence that no one else could.

I’m grateful that for a time I believed I was of Lamanite origin. Except now I have to face that it is likely that I’m not. Even as the rise of DNA research tells an entirely different story, I wonder how useful it will be to tap my aged uncle on the shoulder and inform him that for all of these years, through church building, church service and raising Mormon children he was under a delusion–that there is no evidence that these pronouncements are factual.

“A Maori Mormon Testimony,” Decolonizing Mormonism: Approaching a Postcolonial Zion, p. 41-42

From the “Lamanite Identity” Church History Topic entry,

Just as the history of the northern ten tribes of Israel after their exile in Assyria is a matter of speculation rather than knowledge, the history of the Lamanites after the close of the Book of Mormon record is a matter of speculation. The Church asserts that all members are part of the covenant house of Israel either by descent or adoption but does not take a position on the specific geography of the Book of Mormon or claim complete knowledge about the origins of any specific modern group in the Americas or the Pacific. Whatever the historical particulars, the Church continues its efforts to help realize the hopes of Book of Mormon prophets that the covenants of the Lord might be extended to all the lost sheep of Israel.

“Lamanite Identity,” Church History Topics entry

Discuss.

Lead image from the Church’s media library.

[1] For some unconventional Book of Mormon geography theories, check out an older post on W&T blogger Mormon Heretic’s personal blog.

[2] No, the church is not hiding its “Book of Mormon Geography” section. It appears to be moving towards a system where topic entries are categorized into different groups. In the Gospel Library App under the “Topics” icon, you can access “Gospel Topics” (mainly doctrinal topics, contains the “Book of Mormon Geography” entry), “Gospel Topics Essays” (longer scholarly entries released in 2013-2015 on doctrinal and historical topics considered controversial), and “Church History Topics” (resources on historical topics related to the new Church History series, Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days).

[3] For an in-depth overview, check out “The Use of ‘Lamanite’ in Official LDS Discourse” by John-Charles Duffy in the Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 34 No. 1 (2008).