Mesoamerica, Heartland, Baja, Hemispherical, Costa Rica, and even Malaysia have been suggested as models for Book of Mormon geography. What we know for certain is very little, and what we don’t know is very large when it comes to these things. There are fascinating evidences people have researched with regard to these models, but I’d just like to point out a couple things I find fascinating and make a general statement or two about it.
I grew up in a time when the Mesoamerican theory was the big thing. I remember watching one video by Paul Cheesman multiple times as a teenager. It was fascinating to see the elements of his research and imagine that I was looking at the places where the Book of Mormon took place. In more recent years I’ve become more interested in the Heartland model for a couple of the reasons below. Regardless of what model you lean toward, the important stuff is in points 1 and 2.
1) I know the Book of Mormon is true and the word of God as written by ancient prophets on this continent, just as the Bible is the word of God as written by prophets in the “Old World” around Israel.
“the Church’s only position is that the events the Book of Mormon describes took place in the ancient Americas.”…
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.”
This is always my personal focus. I don’t get riled up about geographic models and find it disheartening that there seems to be some real enmity between some of these geographic model camps.
This site, and the focus of the Scripture Notes program, is on studying the scriptures and looking deeper at what they say, and not a focus on trying to identify the specific locations where things took place. That said, I felt a gentle urge to write this post and perhaps someday, someone who reads it may find some peace in their heart as a result.
3) What we know for certain is that the beginning of the Book of Mormon takes place in Jerusalem and that it ends at the Hill Cumorah in New York state. We know there are a couple locations South of Israel and in Oman that appear to be the likely places Lehi and his group traveled to escape Jerusalem, build a ship, and travel to the Americas, but we do not know with certainty where he landed or really anything else in the middle.
We have models with evidence for support of certain ideas but nobody has unearthed a city with a big sign over the entrance that says, “Welcome to Zarahemla,” though I admit that would be pretty awesome and I hope we find that someday. Regardless, my testimony is in the words of the book, not in specific locations.
4) Now, all that said, I’m going to share a couple things which I do find very fascinating. In a revelation given to the prophet Joseph Smith in Harmony, Pennsylvania, in 1828 (shown in the Doctrine & Covenants, section 10), the Lord revealed to Joseph something that should be of great interest and does, to me, give clear evidence to certain events taking place in this region.
Ancient prophets of the Nephites prayed that if their people were wiped out by wickedness (which they knew would happen), that the Lord would preserve their sacred records and someday bring the gospel to the latter-day descendants of the Lamanites. The Lord told Joseph about these prophets:
48. Yea, and this was their faith-that my gospel, which I gave unto them that they might preach in their days, might come unto their brethren the Lamanites, and also all that had become Lamanites because of their dissensions.
49. Now this is not all-their faith in their prayers was that this gospel should be made known also, if it were possible that other nations should possess this land;
50. And thus they did leave a blessing upon this land in their prayers, that whosoever should believe in this gospel in this land might have eternal life;
51. Yea, that it might be free unto all of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue, or people they may be.
52. And now, behold, according to their faith in their prayers will I bring this part of my gospel to the knowledge of my people. Behold, I do not bring it to destroy that which they have received, but to build it up.
53. And for this cause have I said: If this generation harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them.
And the Lord did establish his church, in this land, in Harmony, Pennsylvania, to bring a gentile nation eternal life, and then to export it through missionary work to the rest of the world in order to gather Israel.
For this reason, among others, I am partial to the Heartland model, but I have no problem if Lehi’s group landed somewhere south of North America and then through the many migrations that consistently went northward in their record, came to this area. It would be a blending of the Mesoamerica and Heartland models of Book of Mormon geography. Regardless, the Lord seems to indicate that upon the land Joseph was familiar with, the Nephites prayed.
5) The last point I’ll share is a personal experience. I grew up in Pennsylvania and as our children aged, I wanted to take them to see the Hill Cumorah pageant (it was only a year or two before it was closed) and other sites back East. On our way through Ohio, we had a fascinating experience at a site I believe was in Newark. This next photo shows an entryway into a large field area but on the left and right edges, you can see the earth is heaped up with a trench all the way around it. It is almost exactly as Captain Moroni describes the fortifications the Nephites built to protect themselves. This berm went in a continuous path around the area and if I remember right, was about three quarters of a mile in length. From the photo you can’t quite make out the berm in the far distance due to the trees. There were 3 mounds in the middle of the enclosed area which you can sort of make out in the leaves directly above the metal railing. That’s about 200 yards out so it doesn’t look very large from the picture but it was a sizeable heap of earth.
While in the visitor’s center, the national park guide asked us if we had been to another nearby location. We had not and he said they had discovered at the tops of the berms, holes the size of tree trunks which lined the top. You can imagine my excitement. I opened my scriptures on my phone to show him in the Book of Mormon in Alma 50 how Captain Moroni built structures just like these with timbers at the top. Unfortunately, he wasn’t impressed or curious to learn more. :(
It was really cool to walk among this fortification and in the visitor’s center see a diagram of another hill in Ohio with such an amazing structure. It’s called Fort Ancient and the defensive hill ran 3.5 miles long and included enclosed water for the people. I don’t know how many people could live in such an area, but that’s a pretty amazing feat of engineering for an ancient group with what we assume only had pretty primitive tools. Of course, these are described numerous times in the Book of Mormon wars which gives strong evidence to the presence of these people.
My point here isn’t to promote one particular Book of Mormon geography model. I just think in my simple faith, I have to trust when the Lord says “this land” and is speaking to Joseph who possessed a very provincial upbringing, that we should just take at face value the Lord is telling us that at some point, Nephites walked the region of Northeast America. Clearly from the Doctrine & Covenants we see the Lord talking about taking the gospel to the Lamanites inside the present boundaries of the United States (do a search for Lamanites filtering for only the Doctrine & Covenants). Regardless, as mentioned above, we don’t know where Lehi landed for certain and I have no problem with a migratory set of events, but it seems clear in my mind that Joseph Smith walked the lands of the Nephites and Lamanites.
There is much research that has been done to promote the various theories, but something I don’t see both sides eager to weigh in on is the Savior’s statements about other sheep he was going to visit after the Nephites (3 Nephi 16:1-3; 18:31). It is entirely possible that the Savior visited quite a few groups of people that had been led away and transformed their societies as well by his teachings. No doubt they kept records and the day will come when those records are brought forth. It’s very possible that where one group finds evidence of the Savior visiting the people, they immediately tie it into the Book of Mormon, when that people’s records have not come forth yet.
Personally, I think by cherishing the content in the Book of Mormon, the Lord may be willing to reveal more about the other sheep and start to bring forth the additional records once the church has been lifted out of the condemnation it is currently in (D&C 84:54-57).
And that’s my two cents on the matter. Feel free to post a comment but I’m not going to allow for Book of Mormon geography wars in the comments. :)