As reported by FairMormon and others, there have been some updates to the new “Book of Mormon Geography” Gospel Topics entry I reported on in January. It seems curious that the Church updated the short entry so quickly after it was originally published, so we’ll explore some possible reasons.
First, let’s go through the changes themselves. Deletions are indicated by
strikethrough. Additions are bolded. Italics are from the original text: 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.
The Book of Mormon includes a history of an ancient people who migrated from the Near East to the Americas. This history contains information about the places they lived, including descriptions of landforms, natural features, and the distances and cardinal directions between important points. The internal consistency of these descriptions is one of the striking features of the Book of Mormon.
Since the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, members and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have expressed numerous opinions about the specific locations of the events discussed in the book. Some believe that the history depicted in the Book of Mormon—with the exception of the events in the Near East—occurred in North America, while others believe that it occurred in Central America or South America. 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 itChurch’s only position is that the events the Book of Mormon describes took place in the ancient Americas.
The Prophet Joseph Smith himself accepted what he felt was evidence of Book of Mormon civilizations in both North America and Central America. While traveling with Zion’s Camp in 1834, Joseph wrote to his wife Emma that they were “wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls and their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity.”1 In 1842, the Church newspaper Times and Seasons published articles under Joseph Smith’s editorship that identified the ruins of ancient native civilizations in Mexico and Central America as further evidence of the Book of Mormon’s historicity.2
The Church does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas. President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, reminded members that “the Book of Mormon is not a textbook on topography. Speculation on the geography of the Book of Mormon may mislead instead of enlighten; such a study can be a distraction from its divine purpose.”
Individuals may have their own opinions regarding Book of Mormon geography and other such matters about which the Lord has not spoken. However, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles urge leaders and members not to advocate those personal theories in any setting or manner that would imply either prophetic or Church support for those theories. All parties should strive to avoid contention on these matters.
Anthony W. Ivins, a Counselor in the First Presidency, stated: “There has never been anything yet set forth that definitely settles that question [of Book of Mormon geography]. So the Church says we are just waiting until we discover the truth.”3 The Church urges local leaders and members not to advocate theories of Book of Mormon geography in official Church settings. Speaking of the book’s history and geography, President Russell M. Nelson taught: “Interesting as these matters may be, study of the Book of Mormon is most rewarding when one focuses on its primary purpose—to testify of Jesus Christ. By comparison, all other issues are incidental.” 43
Why those changes?
First, President Anthony W. Ivins’ April 1929 general conference quote was deleted. On first glance, it looks like they just wanted to replace it with something more recent, hence the quote from sitting apostle President M. Russell Ballard. But President Ivins’ quote is problematic in other ways.
I noted in my January post that some people have accused the Church of favoring certain geography theories over others in official publications like Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days. One critic noted that the supposedly neutral quote from President Ivins was another example of such manipulation. Understand that one of the biggest fights in the Book of Mormon geography wars is over the Hill Cumorah. Was there one hill named Cumorah (the one in New York where Joseph found the plates, suggesting that Book of Mormon events took place in that location), or were there two hills named Cumorah (the one in New York, and another in the actual location that the Book of Mormon took place, most often put forth as Mesoamerica)? The April 1929 quote from President Ivins suggests he was neutral on the theory, but his general conference talk the year before indicates otherwise. The Church had just purchased the Hill Cumorah property, so President Ivins was commenting on the importance of that acquisition.
According to the Book of Mormon many hundreds of thousands of people fell in battle around this hill, and the immediate vicinity. It was here that two once powerful nations were exterminated so far as their natural existence was concerned. It was here that these nations gathered together for their last great struggle…
All of these incidents to which I have referred, my brethren and sisters, are very closely associated with this particular spot in the State of New York. Therefore I feel, as I said in the beginning of my remarks, that the acquisition of that spot of ground is more than an incident in the history of the Church; it is an epoch… We know that all of these records, all the sacred records of the Nephite people, were deposited by Mormon in that hill. That incident alone is sufficient to make it the sacred and hallowed spot that it is to us. I thank God that in a way which seems to have been providential it has come into the possession of the Church.President Anthony W. Ivins, April 1928 General Conference
Second, instead of discouraging talk of geography theories in church settings, the updates expand that to discouraging members from advocating theories in ANY “setting or manner that would imply either prophetic or Church support for those theories.” I’m wondering if at least one reason for that modification was a recent Book of Mormon Central video, “What Have Prophets Thought about Book of Mormon Geography?” Book of Mormon Central occupies a privileged place in church apologetics; they are listed by the Church as a trusted resource for Church Educational System instructors. But this video shares certain books important to church leaders (two from their own personal libraries) that definitely lean a certain direction. First is the book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan by John Loyd Stevens, excerpts of which were included in the Church’s newspaper Times of Seasons (noted in the “Book of Mormon Geography” Gospel Topics entry). A first edition of the Popol Vuh, which records among other things the K’iche’ Mayan creation myth, was displayed from President Spencer W. Kimball’s personal library. A book simply called Geography of the Book of Mormon was shared from President Harold B. Lee’s personal library, wherein was shown a handwritten note from Lee, “Were there two Hill Cumorahs’? One in B of M history, one from which plates came?” You can definitely come away with the perception that modern prophets were drawn to Mesoamerican theories.
Finally, the Church added the admonition, “All parties should strive to avoid contention on these matters.” I mentioned the contention between proponents of different Book of Mormon geography theories in my January post, but I suspect the Church was influenced by Brant Gardner’s guest post at the Times and Seasons blog. Commenting on the original version of the “Book of Mormon Geography” Gospel Topics entry, Gardner wrote, “The church’s message didn’t… include an admonition to increase the civility of the discussions about Book of Mormon geography. Perhaps the Internet simply exposes a larger number of opinions that used to remain private—and then amplifies them. We could do with another admonition from Elder Uchtdorf to stop it.” Later, “While I do think we need to stop the rancor, I don’t think we need to stop the questions.”
What do you think? Any other possible reasons behind the recent changes?
 Many people refer to the “Book of Mormon Geography” entry as a Gospel Topics essay. While technically true (it is a short essay), I find it causes confusion with the big Gospel Topics Essays released a few years ago; that’s why I refer to “Book of Mormon Geography” as a Gospel Topics entry. For information on the difference between the Gospel Topics, Gospel Topics Essays, and Church History Topics sections, see my recent post here. Also, when I first reported on the new “Book of Mormon Geography” Gospel Topics entry, I noted that it was only available in the “Gospel Topics” section of the Gospel Library app, not in the “Gospel Topics” section of the Church’s website. Having it on the website was likely already in the works, because it popped up a short time later.
 President Ballard’s quote in the updated Gospel Topics entry is unsourced. I have no idea where it came from. My guess is it’s a relatively recent address that has no online transcription.