Implications of the Terms “This Land” and “Promised Land”
Copyright © 2010 by Ted Dee Stoddard
Presented at the Eighth Annual
Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum Conference
October 23, 2010, Salt Lake City, Utah
Member, BMAF Board of Advisors
Proponents of the Heartland Model maintain that the New World terms “this land” and “promised land” apply exclusively to territory within the United States. But does the Book of Mormon contain any content that disputes that stance? If so, how should Book of Mormon readers and scholars interpret the book’s New World geographic pointers that include the terms “this land” and “promised land”?
Central to my testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is my statement that I believe the Book of Mormon is a real account about real people who lived somewhere in the New World. I also believe that Mormon intended for us to know the location of the somewhere in the New World. That is, he wrote as if he had a map in front of him and as if he expected his readers to relate to the geographic pointers he used constantly throughout his abridgment.
Book of Mormon literature is replete with writings of all kinds about the pros and cons of knowing the location of the New World setting for the Book of Mormon. These writings have reached a crescendo point in the twenty-first century as Book of Mormon readers and scholars debate the “somewhere” location in the New World.
Never before have the battle lines for Book of Mormon geography been drawn so vociferously as they are today. Most of the contentions occur between proponents of one group, which is known as the “Heartland Model,” and proponents of a second group, which I will label the “Mesoamerica Model.”1 For purposes of discussion, I will refer to the proponents of these two models as “Heartlanders” and “Mesoamericanists.”
By definition, the Heartland Model involves primarily the territory east of the Mississippi River between the Great Lakes on the north and the Gulf of Mexico on the south. That is, New World events of the Book of Mormon took place primarily in this geographic territory. There we will find, according to the Heartlanders, the location of such Book of Mormon sites as the hill Cumorah, narrow neck of land, land southward, land of Nephi, land of Zarahemla, land of Bountiful, waters of Mormon, and so forth. Further, all Book of Mormon New World references to “this land” and “promised land” refer to geographic territory in the United States. Thus, according to the Heartland Model, all New World events of the Book of Mormon took place primarily in the Eastern United States.
On the other hand, the Mesoamerica Model maintains that all New World Book of Mormon events took place in the geographic territory of Mesoamerica, beginning with Mexico City on the north and thence south and east throughout the eastern, southern, and southeastern territory of Mexico, proceeding throughout the countries of Belize and Guatemala, and including the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.
Two of the stated goals of the proponents of the Heartland Model are the following:
1. “To increase understanding of the Book of Mormon as an ancient true historical document that took place in the prophesied Promised Land of the United States of America” and
2. “To overcome incorrect understandings caused by decades of promotion of Mesoamerica as the primary setting for the Book of Mormon.”2
From my perspective as a Mesoamericanist, those statements establish the discussion lines between the Heartland Model and the Mesoamerica Model. In essence, those Heartland Model goal statements openly invite rebuttals to the thinking of the Heartlanders. Before proceeding with one of those rebuttals, I must share some of the outcomes of my experiences thus far in examining the literature and listening to the lectures and DVD presentations associated with the Heartland Model:
1. The Heartlanders have caused me, as a Mesoamericanist, to spend countless hours in reading and analyzing the Book of Mormon either to verify or to challenge the numerous facets of the Heartland Model. That’s not all bad from a sample-of-one perspective.
2. From my perspective as an academician, the Heartlanders have now generated enough content and controversy that I could easily structure and teach a full-blown three-semester-hour course that deals with inaccuracies, misconceptions, falsehoods, and perhaps intentional deceptive statements advocated by the Heartlanders. The discussion that follows about “this land” and “promised land” is the tip of the iceberg in connection with what could be said about the Heartland Model versus the Mesoamerica Model.3
3. As I’ve read the Heartland Model literature and listened to Heartland Model lectures and DVD presentations, I’ve had a difficult time determining whether many of the statements the Heartlanders make are made from a launching pad of ignorance or one of intentional deception. I want to vote in favor of the former, but I fear that the latter plays a key role in some of the procedures followed by the Heartlanders.
4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not take an official stand on the location of New World events of the Book of Mormon. For the present, that’s perhaps a healthy attitude because it not only helps us accept the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon by faith but also stimulates us to use all means available in legitimately identifying the New World locations of Book of Mormon events.
5. Theoretically, because of the numerous geographic pointers that Mormon gives us, we should be able to determine the location of the New World events of the Book of Mormon—if indeed the book is a real account about real people who lived somewhere in the New World.
6. Ideally, at least from my perspective, the logical way to identify the location of the New World events of the Book of Mormon is to read the Book of Mormon and, in the process, determine appropriate nongeographic criteria for use in locating the territory where those events occurred. Contrary to the procedures pursued by many Book of Mormon readers and scholars, we should not begin by identifying a specific geographic area, such as the Hill Cumorah in New York, and then trying to make the Book of Mormon geography fit that area. Four nongeographic criteria that are relevant for use in identifying the New World territory of the Book of Mormon are the following:
The area must show evidence of at least one high-level written language that was in use during the Book of Mormon time period for the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites.
The area must reflect two high civilizations that show extensive evidence of major population centers, continual shifts in population demographics, extensive trading among the cultures, and almost constant warfare among the inhabitants—in harmony with the dates given in the Book of Mormon. One of these civilizations must predate the other by hundreds of years.
The archaeological dating of the proposed area must reflect thorough analyses of sites and artifacts with resulting radiocarbon dates that agree with the dates given in the Book of Mormon.
The historical evidence from the area must provide valid findings that dovetail with the customs and traditions associated with the peoples and dates of the Book of Mormon.
Notice that no specific geographic locations, such as the river Sidon or the hill Cumorah, are contained in the above criteria. Once we have identified the overall territory where the New World events of the Book of Mormon occurred, as reflected in the nongeographic criteria, we can then use Mormon’s map and the geography of the land itself to help identify at least the dominant geographic locations that are named in the Book of Mormon.
Geographic criteria could next be identified as an aid in helping us locate specific territories where the New World events of the Book of Mormon took place. For example, we could use such geographic criteria as (1) an overall territory that is shaped much like an hourglass lying on its side to justify the Nephite cardinal directions of “northward” and “southward”; (2) a dominant river that flows to the north; (3) a narrow strip of mountainous wilderness that runs from a sea on the east to a sea on the west; (4) a massive east wilderness that contains extensive defensive earthworks around most cities as described in Alma 49–50; (5) a narrow neck of land4 in the form of an isthmus that runs north and south, contains a narrow pass,5 and separates a “land northward” from a “land southward”; (6) an extensive, uninhabited wilderness area in close proximity to the narrow neck of land; (7) an east sea with evidence of extensive Preclassic occupation near it; (8) territory whose topography must support the presence of two prominent “lands” that were “up” (Nephi) and “down” (Zarahemla) in elevation as travelers moved one to the other; and so forth.
7. Unequivocally, the more we know about the geography of the Book of Mormon, the more we know about the Book of Mormon. From my perspective in a similar vein, the more we know about Mesoamerica, the more we know about the Book of Mormon.
“This Land” and “Promised Land”
At this point, for comparison purposes, we can logically ask the following question: To what specific geographic territory in the New World do the terms “this land” and “promised land” refer? The Heartlanders autocratically identify the United States as the referent for all New World “this land” and “promised land” occurrences in the Book of Mormon.
For example, in an article by Rod Meldrum, the following statement about the referent for the term “this land” appears:
|We learn from 3 Nephi 20:29 that Jerusalem of the old world is a “Promised Land” for his covenant people, and then we learn from verse 22 that a similarly named land was established upon “this land, unto the fulfilling of the covenant which I made to your father Jacob; and it shall be a New Jerusalem.” These are the only two promised lands of the scriptures and only one is in the New World. According to a revelation given to Joseph Smith as recorded in D&C 84:1–4 we know the exact location of this land. It is in the “western boundaries of the state of Missouri.”6|
And one Heartland Model Web site contains the following statement about the referent for the term “promised land”:
Does the Book of Mormon itself indicate the location of its “Promised Land”? Yes, . . . the Book of Mormon consistently gives us guidance and direction if we will simply look for it. . . . There are 36 specific Prophesies and Promises found in over 200 scriptural passages pertaining to the Promised Land of the latter days. Each of these [is] fulfilled in only one latter-day nation as defined by scripture. That nation is the United States of America. This is supported by the text of the Book of Mormon, along with the Doctrine and Covenants, both considered holy [canon] of the church. The Book of Mormon [occurred] on the Promised Land according to [its] record, making the United States of America the [principal] location of [its] geography.7
As another example, the Heartlanders cite the 57th section of the Doctrine and Covenants as “proof” that the terms “this land” and “promised land” refer exclusively to territory within the continental United States:
Hearken, O ye elders of my church, saith the Lord your God, who have assembled yourselves together, according to my commandments, in this land, which is the land of Missouri, which is the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints.
Wherefore, this is the land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion. (D&C 57:1–2; emphasis added)
From my perspective, I have no arguments with the Heartlanders’ stance that the terms “promised land” and “land of promise” are synonymous terms. Further, I see nothing positive to be gained from the work of some Mesoamericanists who try to distinguish a difference in meaning between “promised land” and “land of promise.”
At the same time, I take umbrage with the Heartlanders’ proprietary attitude of ownership of the terms “this land,” “promised land,” and “land of promise” when they teach that these terms apply exclusively to territory of the United States of America.
Referent Help from the Book of Mormon
From the Book of Mormon, can we identify definitively any New World territory that specifically refers to the terms “this land” and “promised land”? The answer is “Yes,” and I will share with you one instance along with its ramifications.
Between 600 BC and 592 BC, Nephi, the son of Lehi, had several visions of the future in connection with the posterity of Lehi. In one vision, Nephi foresaw the time in the future when Jesus would be sacrificed and resurrected. And Nephi foresaw the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus and the Savior’s subsequent New World visit to the posterity of Lehi following Jesus’s resurrection:
And it came to pass that I saw a mist of darkness on the face of the land of promise; and I saw lightnings, and I heard thunderings, and earthquakes, and all manner of tumultuous noises; and I saw the earth and the rocks, that they rent; and I saw mountains tumbling into pieces; and I saw the plains of the earth, that they were broken up; and I saw many cities that they were sunk; and I saw many that they were burned with fire; and I saw many that did tumble to the earth, because of the quaking thereof.
And it came to pass after I saw these things, I saw the vapor of darkness, that it passed from off the face of the earth; and behold, I saw multitudes who had not fallen because of the great and terrible judgments of the Lord.
And I saw the heavens open, and the Lamb of God descending out of heaven; and he came down and showed himself unto them. (1 Nephi 12:4–6; emphasis added)
We should note here that Nephi prophetically describes these events as occurring in the “land of promise.” As an aside to the ongoing discussion, the territory where this prophecy shows evidence of being fulfilled must be included in any legitimate identification of the New World “land of promise.” For purposes of the present discussion, Nephi’s prophetic utterances associated with the New World land of promise will take place in areas associated with either the Heartland Model or the Mesoamerica Model.
About 6 BC, Samuel the Lamanite made several prophecies to the Nephites. Among his words are prophetic comments about conditions in the New World at the time of Christ’s crucifixion:
And behold, again, another sign I give unto you, yea, a sign of his death. . . .
But behold, as I said unto you concerning another sign, a sign of his death, behold, in that day that he shall suffer death the sun shall be darkened and refuse to give his light unto you; and also the moon and the stars; and there shall be no light upon the face of this land, even from the time that he shall suffer death, for the space of three days, to the time that he shall rise again from the dead.
Yea, at the time that he shall yield up the ghost there shall be thunderings and lightnings for the space of many hours, and the earth shall shake and tremble; and the rocks which are upon the face of this earth, which are both above the earth and beneath, which ye know at this time are solid, or the more part of it is one solid mass, shall be broken up;
Yea, they shall be rent in twain, and shall ever after be found in seams and in cracks, and in broken fragments upon the face of the whole earth,8 yea, both above the earth and beneath.
And behold, there shall be great tempests, and there shall be many mountains laid low, like unto a valley, and there shall be many places which are now called valleys which shall become mountains, whose height is great.
And many highways shall be broken up, and many cities shall become desolate. . . .
And behold, thus hath the angel spoken unto me; for he said unto me that there should be thunderings and lightnings for the space of many hours.
And he said unto me that while the thunder and the lightning lasted, and the tempest, that these things should be, and that darkness should cover the face of the whole earth for the space of three days.
And the angel said unto me that many shall see greater things than these, to the intent that they might believe that these signs and these wonders should come to pass upon all the face of this land, to the intent that there should be no cause for unbelief among the children of men. (Helaman 14:14, 20–28; emphasis added)
We should note here that Samuel the Lamanite’s prophetic utterances were associated with “this land”—much like Nephi’s prophecy was associated with the “land of promise.” For our purposes, both the “land of promise” and “this land” either will be territory associated with the Heartland Model or will be territory associated with the Mesoamerica Model.
About six hundred years after Nephi the son of Lehi prophesied and just a few years after Samuel the Lamanite prophesied, the people in the New World experienced the prophesied calamities at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion. According to Mormon’s abridged record, the following occurred in AD 34:
And it came to pass in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month, there arose a great storm, such an one as never had been known in all the land.
And there was also a great and terrible tempest; and there was terrible thunder, insomuch that it did shake the whole earth as if it was about to divide asunder.
And there were exceedingly sharp lightnings, such as never had been known in all the land. (3 Nephi 8:5–7; emphasis added)
Coincidental with those events, in the land southward, the city of Zarahemla burned, the city of Moroni sank into the sea, earth the size of a mountain covered the city of Moronihah, and other “great and terrible destruction” occurred.
In the land northward, the destruction was worse. The whole face of the land was changed, highways were broken up, many cities were sunk, many cities were burned, many cities were shaken to the earth, many people were slain, and many people were carried away in a whirlwind. “And thus the face of the whole earth became deformed, because of the tempests, and the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the quaking of the earth” (3 Nephi 8:17).
These events took place somewhere in the New World (in the “land of promise” or in “this land” or “in all the land”), and they coincided from a time perspective with the crucifixion of Christ in the Old World. In the New World, the events lasted for about three hours. At that point, “there was darkness upon the face of the land.” Mormon says the following about the darkness:
And it came to pass that there was thick darkness upon all the face of the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness;
And there could be no light, because of the darkness, neither candles, neither torches; neither could there be fire kindled with their fine and exceedingly dry wood, so that there could not be any light at all;
And there was not any light seen, neither fire, nor glimmer, neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, for so great were the mists of darkness which were upon the face of the land.
And it came to pass that it did last for the space of three days that there was no light seen; and there was great mourning and howling and weeping among all the people continually; yea, great were the groanings of the people, because of the darkness and the great destruction which had come upon them. (3 Nephi 8:20–23; emphasis added)
According to today’s Latter-day Saint scientific scholars, the darkness alluded to here by Mormon—“thick darkness,” “vapor of darkness,” and “mists of darkness”—resulted from volcanic ash and gases in the atmosphere following the corresponding volcanic eruptions. If we can identify the geographic territory where these eruptions occurred in the New World, we can identify, without equivocation, the territory where the New World events of the Book of Mormon occurred.9
In that respect, the New World destruction at the time of Christ has two phases: (1) prophecies about the destruction and (2) fulfillment of prophecies about the destruction. The descriptive wording among the three accounts of those two phases is very similar from one account to another. Four significant outcomes from the wording in the Book of Mormon are worth noting here.
First, the primary cause of the destruction and most of the descriptive language of the destruction are associated with massive volcanic eruptions and their aftermaths.10 Thus, any New World candidate for the territorial location of Book of Mormon events must show evidence of volcanic eruptions that reflect the descriptive language of both the prophecies and their fulfillment. If a New World geographic area does not show evidence of volcanic activities, it need not be considered further as a serious candidate for the New World events as recorded in the Book of Mormon.
Second, because volcanic eruptions do not occur in the geographic area of the Heartland Model, we can assume that the Heartland Model (primarily the continental United States territory from the Great Lakes on the north to the Gulf of Mexico on the south) is not the territory where the New World events of the Book of Mormon took place.
Third, if the “thick darkness,” “vapor of darkness,” and “mists of darkness” associated with volcanic eruptions occurred in Mesoamerica, we can assume that the Mesoamerica Model is the territory where the New World events of the Book of Mormon occurred.
Fourth, we can derive the following conclusions based on the words of Nephi in his prophecy, of Samuel the Lamanite in his prophecy, and of Mormon in his abridgement:
The events that were prophesied by Nephi to occur in the “land of promise” took place in Mesoamerica (“I saw a mist of darkness on the face of the land of promise” [1 Nephi 12: 4; emphasis added]).
The events that were prophesied by Samuel the Lamanite to occur in “this land” took place in Mesoamerica (“these signs and these wonders should come to pass upon all the face of this land” [Helaman 14:28; emphasis added]).
“The land” and “this land” as used by Mormon in his abridgement refer specifically to geographic territory in Mesoamerica: (“the whole face of the land was changed” [3 Nephi 8:12; emphasis added]; “there was thick darkness upon all the face of the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness” [3 Nephi 8:20; emphasis added]; “great were the mists of darkness which were upon the face of the land” [3 Nephi 8:22; emphasis added]; and “there was a voice heard among all the inhabitants of the earth, upon all the face of this land [3 Nephi 9:1; emphasis added]).
Summary—The Book of Mormon language in 1 Nephi 12, Helaman 14, and 3 Nephi 8 describing the New World destruction at the time of Christ’s crucifixion is crystal clear in depicting the outcomes of massive volcanic eruptions. Thus, the New World geographic territory of “this land” and “promised land” must show evidence of volcanoes.
Challenge—I invite everyone to set aside three or four hours to query the Internet or other sources in an effort to find any evidence of volcanoes in the geographic territory of the Heartland Model—from the Great Lakes on the north to the Gulf of Mexico on the south. Such evidence is nonexistent because volcanoes simply are not found in this geographic region. Do not be misguided by the Heartlanders who use earthquakes in this territory as evidence of the destruction at the time of Christ.11 The Heartland territory has had significant earthquakes—with more predicted for the future—but never any volcanic activities.
Implications—Unquestionably, based on the eyewitness account in 3 Nephi 8, the Book of Mormon events associated with the crucifixion of Christ took place in Mesoamerica. Thus, we are justified in using the terms “this land” and “promised land” in referring to Mesoamerica.
Two questions arise as a result of that statement:
1. Can we exclusively reserve the terms “this land” and “promised land” for use in connection with territory found in either the Mesoamerica Model or the Heartland Model?
2. Can the terms “this land” and “promised land” be used legitimately in reference to territory found in both the Mesoamerica Model and the Heartland Model?
Confused Definitions in the Heartland Model
We can answer those questions by understanding the societal definitions of selected geographic terms at the time the Book of Mormon was first published and during the lifetime of Joseph Smith.
For example, in detailing the account of the visits of Moroni to Joseph Smith, Joseph tells us that Moroni “said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang” (Joseph Smith—History 1:34; emphasis added). And in preparing what later became known as the “Wentworth Letter,” Joseph composed the tenth article of faith, which reads, “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent” (Articles of Faith, 1:10; emphasis added).
In speaking of the word “continent” as used by Joseph Smith, Heartlanders Bruce Porter and Rod Meldrum state the following:
The interpretation of the phrase “former inhabitants of this continent” must, for clarity of understanding, have one of two meanings or conclusions. Either this refers to “this continent” or it does not. If it does not refer to the United States, a person would have to ignore the demonstrative “this” and then redefine “this continent” into a generality of hemisphere, or continent(s). To assume the latter would mean that either Joseph or Moroni made a mistake in the description and the use of the demonstrative in pointing to the “which” continent. The inspired text should be able to be understood as correctly in 1830 as well as 2030 by reading the words chosen by the Lord.
Even though in the early 1800’s the American continent was defined by Noah Webster’s dictionary to be all of North and South America, later refinements divide North America from South America as two distinct and separate continents. If a North American geographic setting is applied, then Joseph’s statement remains true both then and now, but if a South American setting is used, then Joseph’s statement was true only during his time, and is no longer true because Joseph was never on the South American continent. The Lord knew what the best definition of “this land” and “this continent” would be, and inspired Joseph Smith accordingly. The statements are as correct then as they are now.12
Porter and Meldrum are confused. Or perhaps they are intentionally obfuscating the obvious in their attempts to locate all New World events of the Book of Mormon in the United States’ territory of their Heartland Model.
Can we determine whether they are merely confused or whether they are intentionally being deceptive in trying to mislead their readers and proponents?
Nineteenth-Century Definitions of “Continent” and “America”
Perhaps unknowingly, Porter and Meldrum expose their illogical, deceptive thinking when they say, “Even though in the early 1800’s the American continent was defined by Noah Webster’s dictionary to be all of North and South America, later refinements divide North America from South America as two distinct and separate continents.” That is, Porter and Meldrum are confused because all “later refinements” have no bearing whatsoever in defining terms as they were understood by Joseph Smith and others in the nineteenth century.
So what did the term “continent” mean in the nineteenth century? One intriguing source for an answer to that question comes from a book by John Lloyd Stephens, a contemporary of Joseph Smith and the first reputable nineteenth-century explorer of Mesoamerica.
After great trials and tribulations in getting to the opposite side of the Copan River in Honduras, John Lloyd Stephens and his artist, Frederick Catherwood, first saw the ruins of Copan. They crossed the river and entered the ruins. Later, Stephens reported his feelings:
It is impossible to describe the interest with which I explored these ruins. The ground was entirely new; there were no guide-books or guides; the whole was a virgin soil. We could not see ten yards before us, and never knew what we should stumble upon next. At one time we stopped to cut away branches and vines which concealed the face of a monument, and then to dig around and bring to light a fragment, a sculptured corner of which protruded from the earth. I leaned over with breathless anxiety while the Indians worked, and an eye, an ear, a foot, or a hand was disentombed; and when the machete rang against the chiselled stone, I pushed the Indians away, and cleared out the loose earth with my hands. The beauty of the sculpture, the solemn stillness of the woods, disturbed only by the scrambling of monkeys and the chattering of parrots, the desolation of the city, and the mystery that hung over it, all created an interest higher, if possible, than I had ever felt among the ruins of the Old World.13
Both Stephens and Catherwood were astonished at the exquisitely carved “idols” and altars and the massiveness of the buildings of the ancient city of Copan. They knew they were exploring the ruins of a civilization that rivaled or exceeded those of the Old World. At the outset, Stephens expressed his fundamental conclusion after they had cleared away the debris from the first stela they investigated:
The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest at once and forever, in our minds, all uncertainty in regard to the character of American antiquities, and gave us the assurance that the objects we were in search of were interesting, not only as the remains of an unknown people, but as works of art, proving, like newly-discovered historical records, that the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages.14
Stephens’s 1841 use of “Continent of America” is intriguing in connection with the “Heartland Model” for Book of Mormon geography. At issue here is what the word “continent” meant in nineteenth-century America at the time of Joseph Smith.
First, Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines “America” as follows:
One of the great continents, first discovered by Sebastian Cabot, June 11, O.S. 1498, and by Columbus, or Christoval Colon, Aug. 1, the same year. It extends from the eightieth degree of North, to the fifty-fourth degree of South Latitude; and from the thirty-fifth to the one hundred and fifty-sixth degree of Longitude West from Greenwich, being about nine thousand miles in length. Its breadth at Darien [Panama] is narrowed to about forty-five miles, but at the northern extremity is nearly four thousand miles. From Darien to the North, the continent is called North America, and to the South, it is called South America.15
Thus, to people living at the time of Joseph Smith, “America” consisted of one continent, referenced by the singular pronoun it. That continent, in today’s jargon, was indeed “hemispheric” because “it” included all the territory north and south of the Isthmus of Darien (Panama).
Second, Noah Webster in 1828 defines “continent” as follows:
In geography a great extent of land, not disjoined or interrupted by a sea; a connected tract of land of great extent; as the Eastern and Western continent. It differs from an isle only in extent.16
Thus, Webster again consistently uses hemispheric language in using “Western continent” in the singular to refer to all the territory commonly referred to today as North America, Central America, and South America.
Not long after John Lloyd Stephens’s 1841 Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan was available for sale to the public, Joseph was given a copy of the two-volume set as a gift. We have no reliable information about the extent to which Joseph read Stephens’s volumes or discussed them with Church-member colleagues. Under the date of June 25, 1842, the following entry appears in the History of the Church as part of Joseph’s journal entry for the day:
Messrs. Stephens and Catherwood have succeeded in collecting in the interior of America a large amount of relics of the Nephites, or the ancient inhabitants of America treated of in the Book of Mormon, which relics have recently been landed in New York.17
Note that this statement, intentionally attributed to Joseph Smith in the History of the Church, is not taken from the Church’s newspaper in 1842, the Times and Seasons, but is presented by the Church as part of Joseph’s journal entry of Saturday, June 25, 1842. Thus, according to this official Church source and contrary to all hopes, suppositions, theories, and thinking of the Heartlanders, in 1842, Joseph Smith apparently associated the “interior of America”—territory that today we refer to as Mesoamerica—as a direct connection to the location of New World events of the Book of Mormon.18
Note further that this phrasing, “interior of America,” attributed to Joseph Smith by official Church sources, shows that he believed in the definition of “America” as contained in Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary. That is, “interior of America” in this instance clearly refers to the territory of Mesoamerica rather than to any territory in the interior of the continental United States.
Joseph’s rather casual diary entry as reported also shows his support for the John Lloyd Stephens Times and Seasons articles that some individuals have traditionally been wary of attributing directly to Joseph. The Joseph Smith Papers Project personnel will probably use this journal entry as positive evidence in support of labeling the Times and Seasons articles as “Joseph Smith documents.”
In the July 15, 1842, issue of the Times and Seasons, which was “edited, printed and published” by Joseph Smith, an article entitled “American Antiquities” was printed. We can assume that its author is Joseph Smith for two reasons.
First, the article ends with the notation “-ED” (editor) to signify that Joseph Smith possibly wrote or dictated the article, definitely approved it, and clearly approved the concluding statement that precedes the notation of “-ED.”
Second, in the March 1, 1842, issue, Joseph had forthrightly told the readers that he alone would be responsible for all forthcoming articles attributed to his role as editor.19 The concluding paragraph of the “American Antiquities” article refers to Stephens and Catherwood:
If men, in their researches into the history of this country, in noticing the mounds, fortifications, statues, architecture, implements of war, of husbandry, and ornaments of silver, brass, &c.—were to examine the Book of Mormon, their conjectures would be removed, and their opinions altered; uncertainty and doubt would be changed into certainty and facts; and they would find that those things that they are anxiously prying into were matters of history, unfolded in that book. They would find their conjectures were more than realized—that a great and a mighty people had inhabited this continent—that the arts sciences and religion, had prevailed to a very great extent, and that there was as great and mighty cities on this continent as on the continent of Asia. Babylon, Ninevah, nor any of the ruins of the Levant could boast of more perfect sculpture, better architectural designs, and more imperishable ruins, than what are found on this continent. 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 Mormen unfolds their history. -ED.20
As noted earlier, “this continent” reflects Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary definitions of “America” and “continent” in reference to the “Western continent” that involved all of “America”—North America, Central America, and South America. The terminology here has direct implications for proponents of the Heartland Model, who believe that all New World events of the Book of Mormon took place between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. In this respect, Bruce Porter and Rod Meldrum use the “demonstrative this” in an attempt to prove the efficacy of the Heartland Model. They say:
There exists in the Hebrew language words that are called demonstratives. In viewing statements in the Book of Mormon, these demonstratives become very important to the study of Book of Mormon geography as these words give direction, proximity, and answer the question “which” by directly pointing to a noun or pronoun. This same grammatical concept also exists in the English language and should be understood within the same context. . . .
The important concept to understand is that: the meaning of the demonstrative “this” is singular (among the plural)—definite (within the group)—specific (among many) and always in the proximity of the speaker; it also must be intimate in the knowledge and understanding of the speaker and listener for the word “this” to answer the question of which. The word “that” is singular, definite and specific, but it is remote in difference or distance in respect to the speaker. When equals are discussed and the singular and the plural are used together, the singular is always more definite, more specific and closer in proximity to the speaker. The use of the demonstrative “this” demands that the speaker and the listener both have an intimate knowledge of the specific object of discussion or “this” could not be understood by the listener.21
The point here from the perspective of the Heartlanders is that “this continent” is a clear reflection of the “demonstrative this” that is a critical component of the Heartland Model’s assertion that “this land” refers exclusively to the United States of America. However, “this continent” in these instances is a repudiation of the Heartland Model’s geographical stance because “continent” in these instances during Joseph Smith’s lifetime refers to all of North America, Central America, and South America. That is, to the personnel in the Times and Seasons office in Nauvoo, the “demonstrative this continent” does not refer exclusively to the territory of the Heartland Model but, in actuality, also includes the territory of Mesoamerica.
The prophecies of Nephi and Samuel the Lamanite, together with the fulfillment of these prophecies at the crucifixion of Christ as recorded in 3 Nephi 8, justify Mesoamericanists’ use of the terms “this land” and “promised land” in referring to territory in Mesoamerica. In a similar vein, as one example, the prophecies of Joseph Smith in referring to the New Jerusalem justify our using “this land” and “promised land” in referring to territory in the United States.
In a November 1835 letter to “the Elders of the Church,” Joseph Smith, in referring to 3 Nephi 20:22 and Ether 13:1–12, says that “we learn from the Book of Mormon the very identical continent and spot of land upon which the New Jerusalem is to stand. . . . I shall say with brevity, that there is a New Jerusalem to be established on this continent, and also Jerusalem shall be rebuilt on the eastern continent.”22
In his own way, Joseph alludes to an eastern continent and a western continent. We have no justification for restricting that western continent to the continental United States as Porter and Meldrum do: “Joseph knew where the New Jerusalem was to be built, what ‘continent’ and what ‘spot of land’ that was prophesied of in the Book of Mormon, and they are all within the confines of North America and the United States.”23
Moroni cites Ether’s prophetic statement that the New Jerusalem would be built “upon this land” (Ether 13:4). From Joseph Smith, we learn that the specific site of the New Jerusalem is in Independence, Missouri (see D&C 84:2–4). According to Porter and Meldrum: “This is the same land where Ether and Moroni were speaking about, as they declare the place of the New Jerusalem as ‘this land,’ their land of promise. The Lord declares that the ‘Promised Land’ and place for this important religious center is, ‘the land of Missouri.’”
Porter and Meldrum then misinterpret the scriptures by saying, “This surely must indicate that the land where both Ether and Moroni were writing from must have been within the boundaries of the present day nation of the United States of America, which is understood to contain the New Jerusalem by revelation.”24
Porter and Meldrum justifiably use the terms “this land” and “promised land” in referring to the territory of the New Jerusalem, but they mistakenly identify the United States as the territory in which Ether and Moroni were living and writing.
1. Can we exclusively reserve the terms “this land” and “promised land” for use in connection with territory found in either the Mesoamerica Model or the Heartland Model?
2. Can the terms “this land” and “promised land” be used legitimately in reference to territory found in both the Mesoamerica Model and the Heartland Model?
The answer to the first question is “No.”
The answer to the second question is “Yes, depending on the specific geographical referent to which the terms are being applied.”
Those answers suggest the following concluding statements:
1. Depending on the specific situation, the terms “this land” and “promised land” can legitimately be applied to territory of either the Mesoamerica Model or the Heartland Model. Moreover, because they are synonymous terms, either “promised land” or “land of promise” can be used legitimately in reference to the hemispheric “America” as the New World setting for the Book of Mormon.
2. In some instances, “this land” and “promised land” are used to refer to the entire “western continent” of Joseph Smith, which includes North America, Central America, and South America.
3. Claiming that “this land” or “promised land” refers exclusively in all instances to territory of either the Mesoamerica Model or the Heartland Model is illegitimate. Book of Mormon readers and scholars who insist that these terms apply exclusively to one or the other of the models do so from a position of ignorance of the content of the Book of Mormon and/or the Doctrine and Covenants.
4. Based on dictionary definitions in Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century United States of America, the terms “continent” and “America” referred to the entire western hemisphere and encompassed all of North America, Central America, and South America. In some instances, “this land” and “promised land” have implications for the entire western hemisphere; in other instances, these terms refer to specific territory in the western hemisphere.
5. From a jargonistic perspective, the following statements have merit:
The New World setting for the Book of Mormon is . . . the New World.
The New World setting for the Book of Mormon is “America” as defined in Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century vocabulary.
The location of all New World lands and events of the Book of Mormon is Mesoamerica.
“Promised land” and “land of promise” are synonymous terms.
Synonymously, “America” and “this continent” refer to the same geographic territory—all of North, Central, and South America.
The promised land of the Book of Mormon encompasses all of North, Central, and South America.
6. The massive volcanic activities at the crucifixion of Christ, as recorded in 3 Nephi 8, strongly suggest the probability that all New World events of the Book of Mormon took place in the territory of the Mesoamerica Model rather than in the territory of the Heartland Model.
To this point, I’ve shared with you one instance directly from the Book of Mormon that unquestionably suggests Mesoamerica as the location of the New World events associated with the destruction at the crucifixion of the Savior. The key to this instance is the presence of volcanoes somewhere in the New World. The territory of the Mesoamerica Model has them; the territory of the Heartland Model doesn’t have them.
That situation reminds me of the Wendy’s commercial in 1984 when Clara Peller made the famous statement, “Where’s the beef?” In a similar vein, we should ask the Heartlanders, “Where’re the volcanoes in your model for Book of Mormon geography?” That is, no volcanoes equal no valid geographical connection to what we read in the Book of Mormon about the New World lands and events of the Book of Mormon.
7. As evidenced by the History of the Church journal entry for June 25, 1842, Joseph Smith indeed believed that the New World events of the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica: “Messrs. Stephens and Catherwood have succeeded in collecting in the interior of America a large amount of relics of the Nephites, or the ancient inhabitants of America treated of in the Book of Mormon, which relics have recently been landed in New York.” Clearly, “America” to Joseph Smith encompassed much more territory than the territory that comprised the United States of America at the time and included the territory of present-day Mesoamerica.
8. The June 25, 1842, journal entry of Joseph Smith, as contained in the History of the Church, supports the contentions of Mesoamericanists that Joseph either authored, dictated, or, at the very least, supported the 1842 Times and Seasons articles that identify Mesoamerica as the setting for New World events of the Book of Mormon. Thus, we can legitimately, through one means or another, know that Joseph Smith supported such Times and Seasons quotations as the following:
“It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens’ ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon: light cleaves to light, and facts are supported by facts. The truth injures no one.”25
“There is no stronger circumstantial evidence of the authenticity of the [Book of Mormon], can be given, than that contained in Mr. Stephens’ works.”26
“The city of Zarahemla, burnt at the crucifixion of the Savior, and rebuilt afterwards, stood upon this land [Mesoamerica].”27
“We are not going to declare positively that the ruins of Quirigua are those of Zarahemla, but when the land and the stones, and the books tell the story so plain, we are of opinion, that it would require more proof than the Jews could bring to prove the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb, to prove that the ruins of the city in question, are not one of those referred to in the Book of Mormon.”28
“The Nephites . . .lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found. . . . Who could have dreamed that twelve years would have developed such incontrovertible testimony to the Book of Mormon?”29
9. As Book of Mormon readers and scholars, whether of the Heartland or the Mesoamerica persuasion, we need to refine our Book of Mormon geographical jargon in connection with such terms as “this land,” “promised land,” “land of promise,” “America,” “continent,” “North America,” and so forth. All Book of Mormon readers and scholars need to recognize that the “New World setting for the Book of Mormon” is “America,” which to Joseph Smith encompassed all of North America, Central America, and South America.
10. Mesoamericanists have no reason to quarrel with the Heartlanders in connection with D&C 57:1–2: “Hearken, O ye elders of my church, saith the Lord your God, who have assembled yourselves together, according to my commandments, in this land, which is the land of Missouri, which is the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints. Wherefore, this is the land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion” (emphasis added). That scripture has nothing to do either with Mesoamerica as the New World location of the lands and events of the Book of Mormon or with Mesoamerica as the specific territory in America being referred to in New World Book of Mormon references.
Further, the “official” stance of the Church on lds.org in defining “promised land” is the following: “Lands that the Lord promises as an inheritance to his faithful followers, and often also to their descendants. There are many promised lands. Often in the Book of Mormon, the promised land spoken of is the Americas.”30 Thus, because Missouri is in America as defined during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, it is in the land of promise of the Book of Mormon. It is also part of the land of promise for the Gentiles of the latter days.
11. When Book of Mormon readers and scholars face the implications of what “this land” and “promised land” mean, we have no reason to deny that the territory where all New World events of the Book of Mormon took place is Mesoamerica.
12. Claims by the Heartlanders that all New World events of the Book of Mormon took place in the United States are bogus. In turn, most of the Heartlanders’ Book of Mormon geographical statements associated with the Heartland Model are devoid of substance, credibility, and validity.
13. Finally, from my sample-of-one perspective, the more we know about the Heartland Model, the more we know about the Book of Mormon—as long as we studiously and critically verify the validity of each Heartland Model geographic statement. In a similar vein, the more we know about Mesoamerica, the more we know about the Book of Mormon.
1. From my perspective, the most credible and comprehensive source for a complete, valid discussion of the Mesoamerica Model is that of Joseph Lovell Allen and Blake Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Orem, UT: Book of Mormon Tours and Research Institute, 2008). See www.bookofmormontours.com for further information about this source.
2. Rod L. Meldrum, “FIRM Foundation Boards and Committees, Invitation for Papers,” April 2010 Newsletter from the FIRM Foundation, http://sz0149.ev.mail.comcast.net/zimbra/mail#4 (accessed April 7, 2010).
3. I think that “promised land” and “land of promise” are synonymous terms, and that’s why I use them interchangeably throughout this article. As far as I can tell, most authors who write articles associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints take the same stance. See, for example, Dennis L. Largey, ed., Book of Mormon Reference Companion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), s.v. “Promised land, land of promise,” 658–59.
4. I think that “narrow neck” and “small neck” are synonymous terms and that they both refer to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
5. I think that “narrow pass” and “narrow passage” are synonymous terms that refer to what I think is clearly a “narrow pass” between mountain ranges toward the base of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
6. Rod Meldrum, “The Study of the Book of Mormon,” Desert Saints Magazine (December 2009), http://desertsaintsmagazine.com/2009/12/01/the-study-of-the-book-of-mormon/ (accessed April 30, 2010).
7. “Frequently Asked Questions—Where Exactly Is the ‘Promised Land’ of the Book of Mormon?” http://www.bookofmormonevidence.org/FAQ.php (accessed April 8, 2010); usage errors in original corrected in quotation.
8. I think that “whole earth” as used here and in subsequent related scriptures means a “localized all” rather than a “literal all” that would involve the entire earth. Thus, the outcomes of the New World destruction at the crucifixion of Christ should be associated with “local” territory rather than with territory throughout the western hemisphere or the entire world.
9. For an in-depth discussion and analysis of the events associated with the New World destruction at the crucifixion of Christ, see Ted Dee Stoddard, “‘Thick Darkness,’ ‘Vapor of Darkness,’ and ‘Mists of Darkness’: Indications of Weather and Climate in the Book of Mormon,” www.bmaf.org.
10. To read the definitive article about the 3 Nephi 8 volcanic activities in the New World at the crucifixion of Christ, see Bart J. Kowallis, “In the Thirty and Fourth Year: A Geologist’s View of the Great Destruction in 3 Nephi,” BYU Studies 37, no. 3 (1997–98).
11. See, for example, “Earthquake in the Heartland Documentary,” http://www.bookofmormon evidence.org/ (accessed April 30, 2010). Following are selections from this Web site (most usage errors have been corrected):
The History Channel documentary “Earthquake in the Heartland” [October 12, 2008] which offers plausible connections between the destruction witnessed by the Nephites at the time of Christ and the New Madrid fault system that lies directly below the proposed geography of the Book of Mormon. In 1811–1812 this fault system unleashed the most powerful series of earthquakes in North America in historic times. Over 2,000 earthquakes, at least three of which were magnitude 8.0 or greater, shook this area to the point the entire land surface was changed. . . .
From the History Channel website: “Could a killer earthquake strike America’s heartland? If history proves true, the answer is yes. The 1811–1812 New Madrid earthquakes (centered in southeast Missouri) rank as some of North America’s most catastrophic natural disasters. Stretching more than 160 miles, a system of earthquake faults lurks beneath the Mississippi River basin, loaded and ready to erupt. And it’s happened before. Pioneer residents of New Madrid, Missouri were thrown from their beds in the early hours of December 16, 1811 when an estimated 8-point earthquake hit. But it wasn’t just one event. Multiple shocks were experienced over the next three months—the largest caused the Mississippi to flow backwards. No earthquake sequence has lasted so long, produced so many shocks, nor created such astonishing phenomena on land and water. The New Madrid Fault remains a seismically active area and experts expect a repeat. The only question is when.”
These events created many of the same types of catastrophic [phenomena] as described in the account of the death of the Savior in the Book of Mormon. This earthquake series caused the Mississippi to become dammed, causing a 30 foot wall of water to flow backwards, destroying everything in [its] wake. Bizarre geysers blasted sand and water over 100 feet high and buried [areas] under 10–20 feet of material. A 3,000 square mile section of earth “sunk” or subsided causing the Mississippi river to run into the depression, which formed a near instantaneous lake which still exists today, called Realfoot Lake. Foul hydrocarbon vapors were discharged from deep underground, and huge fissures [opened] up, [swallowing] cattle and homes. In other [areas] lakes were witnessed to simply “drain away” and many reported seeing strange lights glowing in the ground from piezoelectric [phenomena]. The eyewitness accounts from 1811–1812 are amazingly similar to those from the text of the Book of Mormon. Scientists have shown that similar events have [occurred] several times in the ancient history of this area. They have found ancient pottery shards below the geological horizons associated with these events, indicating that Native Americans had indeed [preceded] some of these ancient catastrophic events. Could this fault system be associated with the Book of Mormon people? There is a distinct possibility.
12. Bruce Porter and Rod Meldrum, Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America (Mendon, NY: Digital Legend, 2009), 93; some emphasis added.
13. John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1841), 1:119–20.
14. Stephens, Incidents of Travel, 1:102; emphasis added.
15. Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. “America”; emphasis added.
16. Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. “continent”; emphasis added.
17. Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980), 5:44.
18. For an in-depth discussion and analysis of the Times and Seasons articles that deal with John Lloyd Stephens’s explorations in Mesoamerica, see the following: Ted Dee Stoddard, “‘It Will Not Be a Bad Plan to Compare Mr. Stephens’ Ruined Cities with Those in the Book of Mormon’: Outcomes of Joseph Smith’s Reactions to the Writings of John Lloyd Stephens,” www.bmaf.org.
19. In the March 1, 1842, issue of Times and Seasons, the following announcement was made: “TO SUBSCRIBERS. This paper commences my editorial career, I alone stand for it, and shall do for all papers having my signature henceforward. I am not responsible for the publication, or arrangement of the former paper [February 1, 1842]. . . . JOSEPH SMITH” (emphasis added). Thus, initial planning called for Joseph to assume the role of “Editor” beginning with the February 1, 1842, issue; but he did not take on that responsibility officially until the next issue, March 1.
20. “American Antiquities,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 18, July 15, 1842, 860; emphasis added; spelling in original source retained in quotation.
21. Porter and Meldrum, Prophecies and Promises, 26–27; emphasis in original.
22. Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1938), 85–86.
23. Porter and Meldrum, Prophecies and Promises, 53; emphasis added. Note that Porter and Meldrum have confused the terminology here. At the time of Joseph Smith, “North America” included all territory north and “northward” of the Isthmus of Panama. And in the twenty-first century, “North America” begins at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec—and thus today we speak of North America, Central America, and South America that comprised the western continent of Joseph Smith’s day.
24. Porter and Meldrum, Prophecies and Promises, 54; emphasis added.
25. “Zarahemla,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 23, October 1, 1842, 927.
26. “Stephen’s Works on Central America,” Times and Seasons 4, no. 22, October 1, 1843, 346.
29. “From Stephen’s ‘Incidents of Travel in Central America,’” Times and Seasons 3, no. 22, September 15, 1842, 915.
30. “Guide to the Scriptures: Promised Land,” http://scriptures.lds.org/en/gs/p/63?printing= checked (accessed August 5, 2010); emphasis added.