Joseph Smith made some interesting statements related to Book of Mormon geography. For example, in 1841, after having been given a very popular book about Central America (Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan by John L. Stephens), Joseph Smith, via a scribe, composed and sent a letter to the person who gave him this book:
I received your kind present by the hand of Er. Wilford Woodruff & feel myself under many obligations for this mark of your esteem & friendship which to me is the more interesting as it unfolds & developes many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon; I have read the volumnes with the greatest interest & pleasure & must say that of all histories that have been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country it is the most correct luminous & comprihensive. – Letter to John Bernhisel, 16 November 1841, emphasis added (1)
This letter was signed “Everlasting Covenant, Joseph Smith.”
Shortly after sending this letter, Joseph Smith, as editor (stylometry suggest as writer) allowed commentary about this book to be published in the Church’s official newspaper called the Times and Seasons. The articles pointed to proof of the Book of Mormon’s reality.
“Stephens and Catherwood’s researches in Central America abundantly testify of this thing. The stupendous ruins, the elegant sculpture, and the magnificence of the ruins of Guatamala, and other cities, corroborate this statement, and show that a great and mighty people-men of great minds, clear intellect, bright genius, and comprehensive designs inhabited this continent. Their ruins speak of their greatness; the Book of [Mormon] unfolds their history.” -ED (Editor) (2)
Supporters of a Mesoamerican model might point to these quotes as a definitive statement in support of their theory. However, Joseph Smith made other statements that need to be taken into context.
Ten years before this incident, while traveling on what Mormons call “Zions Camp” through Illinois, Joseph Smith sent a letter, also via a scribe, to his wife Emma saying:
“The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest and sincere men, wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionaly the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity.” -Letter to Emma Smith, 4 June 1834, emphasis added (3)
Supporters of a North American model might point to this quote as a definitive statement supporting their theory. Unfortunately for them, we need to take more into context.
It’s important to take things into context instead of cherry-picking statements. From these two statements, and from other statements by Joseph Smith and early leaders such as Brigham Young or Parley P. Pratt, who were clearly influenced by Joseph Smith, it’s clear that they thought the Book of Mormon happened over all of the Americas- North, Central and South America. That makes sense. I thought the same thing when I first converted to the gospel. We see Panama and correlate it with the “Narrow Neck” mentioned in the Book of Mormon. North America seems like the “Land Northward” and South America seems like the “Land Southward.”
What’s also interesting is that some of these quotes from Joseph Smith refer to “this country” or “this continent”. Some have claimed that these terms are specifically referring to the United States. But, as we can see in Joseph Smith’s letter, it actually means the Americas as a whole. The first quote I shared demonstrates how Joseph Smith referred to a Mesoamerican book as a history of “this country.”
There is arguing and debate over what Joseph Smith thought. But the point is no Book of Mormon theory can claim that Joseph Smith supported their model, unless their model was more of a Hemispheric model. Not a limited section of the Americas like the Mesoamerican model or Heartland model. We can’t pick up one end of a stick without picking up the other end. This means that we can’t cherry pick one quote, with accounting for his other quotes and actions.
Personally, I think if the early Saints would have thought differently if they had lived into our days of scholarship, research and science. Perhaps similar to Gordon B Hinckley, or Neal A Maxwell. We’ve come far in our research, and we’ve had more time to study it out in our minds (D&C 9:8) without worrying about mobs, death, or the necessities of life.
As a conclusion, lets stop cherry-picking early prophetic quotes to support our own pet theories. Let’s continue to study and read from the best of books (D&C 88:118) so that we might have a better understanding of context.
1. Letter to John Bernhisel, 16 November 1841, found on the Church’s Joseph Smith Papers website, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-john-bernhisel-16-november-1841/1
2. Ed., “American Antiquities,” Times and Seasons 3/18 (15 July 1842): 858–60
3. Letter to Emma Smith, 4 June 1834, found on the Church’s Joseph Smith Papers website, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-emma-smith-4-june-1834/1