The Church recently released a statement about Book of Mormon Geography. From it we learn two important things:
“The Church does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas”
This suggests that no geography statements by Joseph Smith or any other leader has been strong or certain enough to be considered revelatory or doctrine. Nothing they’ve said has caused the Church to make geographical statements official doctrine. The only thing that has been binding enough is that the Book of Mormon happened in the Americas Somewhere in North, Central, or South America. Or maybe a mix of them.
Even the location of the Hill Cumorah is uncertain and unrevealed. The Church recently released a statement how Joseph Smith never clarified where the real “Hill Cumorah” was. Evidence suggests that the New York hill was only titled “Cumorah” because of tradition.
“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.”
Statements by early leaders about geography are considered opinions. And there are tons of statements all over the map. In fact, research demonstrates that Joseph Smith and the early Church had a hemispheric view of the Book of Mormon. Meaning to them, it happened all over the Americas. This is why the Church’s statement says:
“The Prophet Joseph Smith himself accepted what he felt was evidence of Book of Mormon civilizations in both North America and Central America.”
This was a common assumption in the early Church, which is why there are statements all over the map. It wasn’t until the 1900’s that we began to realize that the Book of Mormon describes a much smaller area, and that the entire Western American Hemisphere is impossibly too big to be the Book of Mormon lands. This is why leaders and scholars have been looking at smaller models, and hence why there’s been debate lately, with so many theories. But in the early years of the Church, there was not really any debate because of this hemispheric view that everyone seemed to agree upon.
“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.”
This statement is probably the most interesting. It suggests that members who claim that Joseph Smith supported their model are incorrect. This would make sense, since the Church said that Joseph Smith had a general hemispheric view. Members are simply disregarding the Church when they claim that if you believe in a different model than theirs, then you don’t believe the prophets. Unfortunately, there are leaders in the Heartland movement that take this approach. See notes below.
It’s fine to research Book of Mormon geography, and to even have opinions about where it happened. The danger that we should all be aware of is overstepping with our statement beyond what the Church has said. When we claim that Joseph or another prophet believed our model, or that the geography is revealed, then we are contradicting the Church.
When something is unrevealed, it’s important to being open to other opinions. It’s important to state now and then that our model is not doctrine. And it’s important to use good science to help support our views, rather than relying on a hand full of church quotes.
Concerning Heartland leaders, Jonathon Neville, one of the leaders of the Heartland movement has said:
“This example from the Ensign is really the tip of the iceberg of what the Correlation Department has been doing to rewrite history and suppress what the prophets have taught about the New York Cumorah, the identification of the descendants of Lehi, etc.”
“The ongoing efforts by the Church History Department (CHD) to revise Church history to promote M2C [Mesoamerica 2 Cumorah Theory]. CHD appears to be colluding with the efforts of BYU/CES to teach the Saints that the prophets are wrong about the New York Cumorah.”
“Saints is agenda-driven revisionist history that is teaching people to disbelieve the prophets about an important topic.”
“Even BYU/CES students are being deliberately misled about the consistent and persistent teachings of the prophets and apostles about the New York Cumorah”
“Ridiculing the prophets and apostles on this topic has become the default position of our LDS intellectuals, including those teaching at BYU and CES.”