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That's easy. We don't know.

The only way to try to evaluate extra-textual claims is to see how consistent they are with the book. I think the Continental Geography is massively incompatible with what's written. Other elements may be sufficiently vague so as to be taken numerous ways.

Just based on the basic sources, here's my take on it. No one really disputes Lucy Mack Smith's account of Joseph telling Nephite stories to the family well before the plates were translated. These stories must either (1) be from angelic teaching or (2) from Joseph's creative imagination, based on popular and pseudo-scientific speculation about Israelites in America or Native American origins.

The "angelic instruction" story is in fact canonized in the yearly visits of Moroni with Joseph at the Hill Cumorah between 1824 and 1827, where he received instruction on various topics (we're told).

So I don't see how apologists (FARMS) and commentators (Clark) can argue that Joseph's knowledge of Nephites was limited to the text.

Obviously, there are some advantages to limiting argument to the text--otherwise the debate centers around Joseph's state of mind (what he knew) and how he came to know such things (angelic visitations, visionary enlightenment, dreams, seer stones, the Spirit). Apologists tend to be much happier glossing over those details with the meaningless phrase "by the gift and power of God" rather than actually explaining how God enlightenend Joseph.

In fairness, Christians don't offer many details on how "the Spirit" enlightens or inspires modern day Christians or those who uttered/wrote inspired words now recorded in the Bible. So it may be unfair to expect a clear and detailed explanation for how Joseph knew what he claimed to know.

Dave and Clark

I have to say that I concur with Dave. Mormonism is unique in that we have a large body of resources and these sources paint a fairly consistent picture. We have nearly every Mormon document (that still exists) surrounding it's origins, published in Dan Vogel's five volume "Early Mormon Documents" series. We have the Joseph Smith Papers Project at BYU and we have, and are about to have a few very good biographies based on these documents. I doesn’t seem that one has to have a remarkable intellect to see the scenarios surrounding what Joseph thought he knew and what he felt came from God. We all hope that he didn't make up the first vision and yet we have far more convincing evidence and testimonies for the Zelph story than we do for Joseph's first encounter with deity.


I should mention that I’ve noticed that you have been the apodeme of civility in our exchange. Much better than myself, I’m afraid. I may not be convinced by your arguments but I’m swayed by your actions.

My Best


"So I don't see how apologists (FARMS) and commentators (Clark) can argue that Joseph's knowledge of Nephites was limited to the text."

Note that this was never my claim. My claim is simply we can't assume that simply because Joseph says something about the Book of Mormon that isn't in the text that it is necessarily revealed information and not interpretation. That he had extra information I certainly believe. That we can easily tell which is which is what I find problematic.

The problematic problem is not in my camp, which is simply a position recognizing ignorance, but those who claim whatever Joseph says must be presumed revelation, even when it is inconsistent with the text or other facts. That such statements are then used to undercut the historicity surely isn't why such critics are eager to make Joseph have de facto claims of infallibility, is it?

My own claim is that just because Joseph believed it does *not* imply that Mormons ought consider it inspired. To make that claim one must totally discount Joseph as interpreter.

Just concerning the Continental GH vs. Limited GH views of the Book of Mormon...

I would look for some flexibility between the two somehow. If one looks strictly at the text of the book of Mormon, I think it is more suportive of the LGH perspective. But it's hard for me to imagine that people who made it all the way across the ocean from the Middle East to the Americas, TWICE, would just sit still in a relatively small and narrow area ... especially during a period of time as long as 600 B.C. to 400 A.D. (assuming I'm remembering dates correctly). I think the Book of Mormon itself supports the idea that some people got antsy and either built boats or just got up and walked.

People, in general, in this world ... are mobile -- for a wide variety of reasons (curiosity, economics, wars, etc.). Also, it appears the Nephites were constantly in jeopardy due to their numbers in comparison to the numbers of Lamanites. We see how far Mormons moved during the nineteenth century just to get some peace, quiet and security. I'm positive at least some Nephites would have drawn the conclusion (either logically or from the prophecies handed down) that the Nephite culture and civilization were not going to last -- and as a result they bailed and went off to found their own communities or groups in places that were far away from good ol' Zarahemla.

'Scuse my colloquialisms. :)

Clark, that seems like a more reasonable position than the one I ascribed to you. And speaking of interepretation, it should be noted that Lucy Mack Smith's recollections of young Joseph's Nephite stories were recorded after Joseph's death when LMS was well advanced in years, raising questions of both memory and retrospective interpretation.

I strongly suspect that Moroni did tell Joseph about the Nephites prior to the translation. It would make sense. However I'm not sure we ought to assume too much about what that would entail. Further given Joseph's own background, how likely would Joseph be to overinterpret it, adding it in to his own assumptions about the native Americans around him. (A context Vogel and others have provided quite well)

It is that question of intertextuality that I find so interesting. Where I find Vogel so interesting is not so much providing much information about the Book of Mormon but providing a "meta-narrative" which would obviously dramatically affect how early Mormons would *read* the Book of Mormon.

I think the Zelph story is a great example. The difference between the fairly cautious Woodruff account of the vision which doesn't mention Nephites and adds lots of caveats and possibilities and the fairly vague Joseph comment about Nephites is that cultural background. If there was a white Lamanite in vision, how would Joseph interpret it? i.e. assuming a limited vision, what would be the obvious way Joseph would expand the account in the vision?

It is those sorts of questions that critics and perhaps some conservative Mormons seem to avoid asking.

"It is that question of intertextuality that I find so interesting. Where I find Vogel so interesting is not so much providing much information about the Book of Mormon but providing a "meta-narrative" which would obviously dramatically affect how early Mormons would *read* the Book of Mormon."

Vogel's work on the anti-Masonic thesis is interesting in this regard. His earliest article is about the context in which some (very) early Mormons (esp. Martin Harris) read the BofM. He is not really making strong claims about the source of the Book of Mormon. His later articles, are much more explicitly elaborations of the Brodie thesis. I think that you are correct that much of the work done by environmental theorists of the BofM is tremendously useful precisely because it provides a way of understanding the context for the earliest readers, even if one is less sanguine about the source claims made by such theorists. Unfortunately, this point frequently seems to get lost in the pyrotechnics over historicity claims, which among other things pushes both sides to over-read their sources, IMHO.

I think that's an excellent point Nate. I think all sides have a big problem of over-reading sources. I mentioned this in a way in my review of Widmer's Mormonism and the Nature of God. The variable of vagueness in accounts always seems ignored or downplayed. Yet when reading accounts - especially witnesses whose recountings are removed from the events in question - that issue of vagueness or indeterminity seems key.

Certainly I don't fault people, like Widmer for reading the text in a way that is possible. However to downplay the other possibilities of the text is, unfortunately, somewhat deceptive. Not that critics are the only ones doing this. Nibley does it a *lot* and often reads texts in ways that go beyond what can easily be justified.

I don't agree that the "apologist" crowd thinks Joseph had zero extratextual knowledge. The question is - did he have any extratextual geographical knowledge? The answer, IMO, is no. If he had extratextual knowledge it might come from visions or dialogue with angels. I've had no visions, but my guess is that they convey very little geographical info - i.e., no zoom in from outer space like in a movie. (Even visions of, say, Enoch and Noah where they saw everything, my guess is they were focused on things other than geography.) I also imagine that Joseph's conversations with Moroni were not about geography.

I agree with Danithew that it is probable that both the Lehites and the Jaredites expanded beyond the locales covered in the Book. We know Nephites moved Northward and lost contact from Alma 63.

Just want to pipe in that it all makes perfect sense if you take the POV that he made the whole thing up.

Yes, but that sort of begs the question of why, when he was making it up, he'd differ in such great detail between what he presumably wrote with such care in the book and what he spoke about later.

I think you're wrong, Ann. Some things make perfect sense if you argue that he made the whole thing up, but other things become puzzling. Likewise, some things (a different set of things) make perfect sense if you argue that God worked through Joseph just like Joseph said, but other things then become puzzling or in need of explanation. If there was a simple explanation the question wouldn't generate such sustained interest and discussion.

Of course, the historical record is a matter of considerable dispute--the set of "things to be explained" is not at all settled.

I think that's a good point Dave. One thing that folks on either side rarely do is acknowledge that all models lead to very odd questions. Further simply saying something is "unlikely" to be mere coincidence doesn't really do much. No matter what side you come down on there is a lot of "unlikely" stuff going on.

The LGH makes more sense to me, as long as the limited geography is limited to the Great Lakes area. The FARMs folks seem intent on putting it somewhere in Central America. That is what defies logic. The one place identified in the Book of Mormon is the Hill Cumorah. That is in New York State. Joseph seems to have had knowledge of the Nephites and Lamanites beyond the Book of Mormon text -- as I remember he even identified various bones that were found as specific Nephites and Lamanites. The Land of Promise is the United States, not Honduras. The FARMs people are looking in the wrong place. And their reasoning? It doesn't mention snow in the Book of Mormon -- as if the Book of Mormon were a weather reporting book.

The Great Lakes region has many problems with consistency to the text itself. For one, the time of the battles and crops seems correlated to a more hot tropical region, based on time. (There's a great FARMS article on this) Snow is never mentioned. The Hill Cumorah in New York doesn't fit the descriptions in the Book of Mormon. (i.e. it a glacier moraine and thus mainly gravel with no caves and would be poor as a military position) The directions are even more off than Sorenson's model. There isn't land surrounded by water.

John Clark had a FARMS article critiquing the view as well.


Clark must have money invested in promoting Book of Mormon tours ...

Seriously, though, my guess is that BYU scholars know that admitting a New York state geography presents some problems. There was a man named Vernal Holley who constructed Book of Mormon maps and compared them to what Spaulding had used in his book. These can be found here:

Vernal Holley

I would guess any admission of a New York geography might be dangerous to them. I have no such qualms. I think it entirely insane to propose a limited Book of Mormon geography in Central or South America since in the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord talks about Lamanites and places them in the area of Joseph Smith.


Bart, you're doing a good job representing the "traditional LDS" view of BoM geography. I've read the Vernon Holley stuff. I've even seen CES types handing the stuff out at training meetings. Since the official Church declines to make specific statements (even if it appears to be leaning toward the FARMS view), I can't see how Holley's view or anyone else's can be firmly rejected.

Clark, you're right, I don't recall snow in the BoM. However, I don't recall rain being mentioned either. Nor the five or six million Native Americans spread from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. I suppose it's reasonable to think that if BoM events happened in the Great Lakes area, snow would have been mentioned. But then it's also reasonable to think that if BoM events happened anywhere in the Americas, the presence of large populations of non-Israelite Native Americans would have been mentioned. So I think arguing from the absence of a topic or artifact in the BoM text is a tricky undertaking.

Dave, I'm not sure that the snow is an argument by silence, although it does appear like that at first. There was an article in _Warfare in the Book of Mormon_ that goes through the times of harvests and war that correlates very well with tropical conditions but not at all with more temperate regions. As you may know, warfare in snow has large strategic implications.

Of course if one adopts the view, as Holley does, that it is all fiction cribed from Spaulding and local names and regions, then that isn't a big deal. However if you adopt the view of real Nephites, then you have to deal with the weather of the Great Lakes region as well as the lack of volcanic activity.

Clark, I'm not a big proponent of the Great Lakes setting, although it's hard to find better candidates for a "narrow neck of land" with a river running through it than the connections between each of the Great Lakes. Of course, it's also fun to tease Canadians with the idea that the Land of Desolation northward might have been primeval Canada.

I also have a connection in my mind between Mormon's "land of many waters" and Minnesota's "land of 10,000 lakes" slogan but I realize how irrational the "Minnesota License Plate Hypothesis" sounds. Although if Sunstone can float a Malaysia hypothesis, I might be able to get an article out of the idea. There's always the Kensington Runestone to consider. Mosiah I translated characters (runes?) off of a big stone, you recall. Leif Ericson, Neaf Lehison, pretty close?

As I said, the big problem as I see it is snow. I have a hard time linking up the descriptions of the Lamanites in the text with Canadian winters - having experienced many of them. Likewise I'd once again point out the problem of time.

The stronger argument for the great lakes region is that it served as a template for a fictional account that wasn't tied to any actual geography. Those who do seek an actual geography though simply can't exclude weather conditions.

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