Did the Book of Mormon happen Hemispherically, spanning across the entire Americas, or did it happen in a smaller limited area? Two apostles have made some very interesting statements about the size of the Book of Mormon lands:
Elder Neal A. Maxwell
Individuals and settings of obscurity are not unusual to the Lord’s purposes. Meridian–day Christianity was initiated on a very small geographical scale and with comparatively few people. The larger, busy world paid little heed to it. Likewise with the Book of Mormon peoples. Whether located in Meso–America or elsewhere, they were one people among many peoples on this planet and perhaps even on the western hemisphere. (1)
Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Here [at BYU, in the 1950s] I was introduced to the idea that the Book of Mormon is not a history of all of the people who have lived on the continents of North and South America in all ages of the earth. Up to that time, I had assumed that it was. (2)
These two quotes demonstrate how apostles are open to a smaller geographical size for Book of Mormon lands, rather than a larger size. Read the rest of Elder Oaks quote in the footnotes section for a convincing reason why a smaller area for the Book of Mormon is easier to prove than a larger area.
There are many theories about where the Book of Mormon took place. There’s the Peru model, the Baja model, the Great Lakes model, and more. The Mesoamerican model seems to be the most accepted area in the LDS Church due to it’s many scholarly correspondences. But a smaller model wasn’t always the case. Before the 1960’s, many people in the Church thought the Book of Mormon happened over all of the Americas, from South America to North America. This is called a Hemispheric Model. The opposite is called the Limited Model, meaning it happened in a much smaller area. Researchers began to realize that the distances mentioned in the Book of Mormon are unrealistic unless it happened on a smaller scale. Some estimate a 1000 miles in length at most.
Pretty much every early Latter-day Saint thought the Book of Mormon happened Hemispherically, including Church leaders. This makes sense. It’s easy to think that way. We read about the “Narrow Neck” and automatically think of Panama. We read of the “Land of Many Waters” and quickly think of the Great Lakes area, close to where the plates were discovered. The “Land of Desolation” was the desert area around Northern Mexico. “Bountiful” was the lush Amazon Forest with “The River Sidon” being the Amazon River. North America was the “land northward” and South America was the “land southward”. And so forth.
Early Latter-day Saints and Church leaders had bigger things to worry about than trying to research the details about Book of Mormon geography from an academic perspective, especially Joseph Smith, who was consistently under persecution. Statements from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young demonstrate their belief in a Hemispheric Model. Orson Pratt influenced this Hemispheric model in the early Church. In fact, the Joseph Smith Papers, an official Church History organization, said:
In his description of the Book of Mormon, Orson Pratt superimposed his understanding of Book of Mormon geography onto the Western Hemisphere by placing the Nephites in South America and the Jaredites in North America. Pratt’s association of Book of Mormon peoples with the history of all of North and South America matched common understanding of early Latter-day Saints. (3)
Is it bad that they were incorrect in their assumptions? Not at all. They had restored to them the important and necessary truths of the Gospel. The location of the Book of Mormon isn’t necessary to our salvation. They may have had speculations, and expressed it as if it was fact, but the truth is that these things haven’t been confirmed consistently by Church leaders. In fact, the Office of the First Presidency sent a fax in 1993 stating:
The Church emphasizes the doctrinal and historical value of the Book of Mormon, not its geography. While some Latter-day Saints have looked for possible locations and explanations […], there are no conclusive connections between the Book of Mormon text and any specific site. (4)
The Church correctly expressed this idea of a limited geography when they changed the introduction of the Book of Mormon to “The Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.” It used to say “The Lamanites, and they were the principal ancestors of the American Indians”. It’s important to note that the introduction was not on the original plates or written by Joseph Smith. So the Church wasn’t changing what the text said, only how they interpreted it.
The Church also expressed a limited geographical idea in its DNA Essay,
The Book of Mormon itself, however, does not claim that the peoples it describes were either the predominant or the exclusive inhabitants of the lands they occupied. In fact, cultural and demographic clues in its text hint at the presence of other groups. At the April 1929 general conference, President Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency cautioned: “We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon … does not tell us that there was no one here before them [the peoples it describes]. It does not tell us that people did not come after.
The fact that there are different opinions among Church leaders about the location of the Book of Mormon (such as Hinckley making statements for Central America here or Joseph Fielding Smith making statements for North America) should demonstrate that the matter is not yet revealed. And when something isn’t revealed, we should be weary of members who claim it is. Also, when something isn’t revealed, it’s up to us to “study it out in our mind” (D&C 9:9) and “use the best books” (D&C 88:118).
This story of the evolution of acceptance from the Hemispheric Model to the Limited Model can demonstrate a few things:
First, we can see how a casual reading of the Book of Mormon may produce incorrect ideas. But it might not be just a casual reading that creates incorrect ideas, it may simply be the lack of knowledge, resources and technology that we have at the moment. Joseph Smith and the early Saints didn’t have the tools we have today. In fact, archaeology was somewhat a new science at that time. Luckily, the doctrine can be easier to understand than a lot of the historical issues. The truths in the Book of Mormon were still easy to understand, even though the science or context behind it wasn’t. And the exciting news is that there are more discoveries waiting for us to discover. There’s much more in store. New discoveries are bringing to light new evidences. Let us always be open, using the best tools we have.
Second, when we take a limited geographical approach to the Book of Mormon, we begin to see just how real and plausible the Book of Mormon actually is. It’s not because a limited theory makes the Book of Mormon easier to prove (real proof comes through prayer, revelation and the Holy Ghost), but it’s because a limited theory makes it more realistic, and easier to visualize.
Third, we can see that as researchers and members of the Church took a more scientific or scholarly approach to the text, amazing things began to be discovered. We need not fear the sciences. It’s actually supporting the Book of Mormon. Sometimes we might think that science is disproving the Book of Mormon, but if we look at it in light of a limited geography approach, science is actually bringing us more evidences than before. We just need to be careful about our claims, be open to other possibilities, and use the best scholarly approaches available.
(1) Neal A. Maxwell, But For A Small Moment (Salt Lake City, Utah: Desert Book, 1986), 18
(2) “Here [BYU, 1950s] I was introduced to the idea that the Book of Mormon is not a history of all of the people who have lived on the continents of North and South America in all ages of the earth. Up to that time, I had assumed that it was. If that were the claim of the Book of Mormon, any piece of historical, archaeological, or linguistic evidence to the contrary would weigh in against the Book of Mormon, and those who rely exclusively on scholarship would have a promising position to argue.
In contrast, if the Book of Mormon only purports to be an account of a few peoples who inhabited a portion of the Americas during a few millennia in the past, the burden of argument changes drastically. It is no longer a question of all versus none; it is a question of some versus none. In other words, in the circumstance I describe, the opponents of historicity [i.e. those who argue that the Book of Mormon is not a literally true record, as it claims] must prove that the Book of Mormon has no historical validity for any peoples who lived in the Americas in a particular time frame, a notoriously difficult exercise. You do not prevail on that proposition by proving that a particular Eskimo culture represents migrations from Asia. The opponents of the historicity of the Book of Mormon must prove that the people whose religious life it records did not live anywhere in the Americas.”
H. Oaks, “Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies Annual Dinner Provo, Utah, 29 October 1993; cited in Dallin H. Oaks, “The Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1994), 2-3. Reproduced in Dallin H. Oaks, “The Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 237–48
(3) The Historical Introduction to Appendix: Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 1840. http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/appendix-orson-pratt-an-interesting-account-of-several-remarkable-visions-1840/1#historical-intro
(4) Fax from the Office of the First Presidency to FARMS, April 12, 1993.