Away from the Heartland: Joseph Smith, John Lloyd Stephens, and a Mesoamerican Setting for the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon Archeology Foundation has decided it’s time to speak out against what they believe are misleading efforts to promote what is called the “Heartland Model” of the Book of Mormon, a model which proposes the Great Lakes area and other parts of the current United States as the primary setting for the Book of Mormon. I agree that the Heartland Model fails for many reasons, while Mesoamerica makes much more sense. They now offer a page criticizing this model, including links to the following resources:

I highly recommend the last article by John Tvedtnes to gain an understanding of just how many LDS voices over the decades have been pointing to Mesoamerica. Very valuable reference. But the one I wish to focus on for this post is Ted Dee Stoddard’s “Joseph Smith and John Lloyd Stephens.” Stoddard reminds us of the profound effect that the widely publicized writings of Stephens had on Joseph Smith, offering what appeared to be strong vindication of the Book of Mormon in showing that there were great cities and civilizations in the ancient Americas like those described in the Book of Mormon. Importantly, he also argues that this information from Stephens influenced Joseph away from a hemispheric view of Book of Mormon geography to one focused in Mesoamerica, and indeed, to one that excludes Panama as the narrow neck of land to one where the narrow neck must be to the north, in Mesoamerica, as is accepted today by many LDS scholars.

Stoddard’s analysis of Joseph Smith and Stephens also reminds us that a Mesoamerican-centric view of Book of Mormon geography is NOT a modern invention to dodge recently fired bullets from modern science and DNA studies.

Here is an excerpt from his thorough article, which I encourage you to read and ponder it is entirety.

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. On June 25, 1842, he noted the following: “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.”

At this point, Joseph clearly and unequivocally shows his support for the thinking that the Nephites lived in Mesoamerica. The date of June 25, 1842, is a year later than the first mention of Stephens’s Mesoamerican explorations in the Times and Seasons under the title of “American Antiquities—More Proofs of the Book of Mormon”:

We feel great pleasure in laying before our readers the following interesting account of the Antiquities of Central America, which have been discovered by two eminent travellers who have spent considerable labor, to bring to light the remains of ancient buildings, architecture &c., which prove beyond controversy that, on this vast continent, once flourished a mighty people, skilled in the arts and sciences, and whose splendor would not be eclipsed by any of the nations of Antiquity—a people once high and exalted in the scale of intelligence, but now like their ancient buildings, fallen into ruins.

Following this June 15, 1841 introduction, this issue of the Times and Seasons contains a lengthy article about lectures given by Stephens and Catherwood. The article was originally published in New York City in the Weekly Herald. Though Joseph Smith was not the editor of this issue of the Times and Seasons, we can assume that he approved of its content. . . .

In the July 15, 1842, issue, 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: (1) 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” and (2) 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. 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.

Though difficult to determine because of inadequate documentation techniques, the major part of the article should probably be attributed to the Antiquarian Society, which disputes the claim that existing native Amerindians of the United States could be responsible for archaeological findings that were taking place at the time: “To this we respond, they never have: no, not even their traditions afford a glimpse of the existence of such things, as forts, tumuli, roads, wells, mounds, walls enclosing between one and two hundred, and even five hundred acres of land; some of them of stone, and others of earth, twenty feet in thickness, and exceeding high, are works requiring too much labor for Indians ever to have performed.” That is, to the typical United States resident at the time, Amerindian natives of the United States were savages who were incapable of constructing the artifacts that archaeological endeavors were beginning to uncover or discover in the Mesoamerican territory of “this continent.”

The point to note here—in 1842 based on the content of articles in the Times and Seasons—is that Joseph Smith was conceivably shifting his focus from the United States to Mesoamerica in pinpointing the peoples of the Book of Mormon and the area where the events of the Book of Mormon occurred. His thinking was clearly influenced by the writing and thinking of John Lloyd Stephens. . . .

The September 15, 1842, issue of the Times and Seasons, which again was “edited, printed and published” by Joseph Smith, begins with a lengthy quotation from Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. The content deals with Palenque. Following almost four pages of direct quotation from Stephens, Joseph Smith (at least “Joseph Smith” by virtue of his approval as editor) states the following: “The foregoing extract has been made to assist the Latter-Day Saints, in establishing the Book of Mormon as a revelation from God. It affords great joy to have the world assist us to so much proof, that even the most credulous cannot doubt.”

The Times and Seasons article then reads as follows:

Let us turn our subject, however, to the Book of Mormon, where these wonderful ruins of Palenque are among the mighty works of the Nephites. . . . Mr. Stephens’ great developments of antiquities are made bare to the eyes of all the people by reading the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. They lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found. Read the destruction of cities at the crucifixion of Christ, pages 459–60 [of the first-edition Book of Mormon]. Who could have dreamed that twelve years would have developed such incontrovertible testimony to the Book of Mormon? surely the Lord worketh and none can hinder.

The October 1, 1842, issue of the Times and Seasons continued to reflect the influence that Stephens had on the Prophet’s thinking about the lands and peoples of the Book of Mormon. The issue begins with the following paragraphs that deal with Stephens’s findings about Quirigua, Guatemala:

Since our “Extract” was published from Mr. Stephens’ “Incidents of Travel,” &c., we have found another important fact relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon. Central America, or Guatimala, is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien and once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south.—The city of Zarahemla, burnt at the crucifixion of the Savior, and rebuilt afterwards, stood upon this land. . . .

It is certainly a good thing for the excellency and veracity, of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, that the ruins of Zarahemla have been found where the Nephites left them: and that a large stone with engravings upon it as Mosiah said; and a “large round stone, with the sides sculptured in hieroglyphics,” as Mr. Stephens has published, is also among the left remembrances of the, (to him,) lost and unknown. 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.

It may seem hard for unbelievers in the mighty works of God, to give credit to such a miraculous preservation of the remains, ruins, records and reminiscences of a branch of the house of Israel: but the elements are eternal, and intelligence is eternal, and God is eternal, so that the very hairs of our heads are all numbered. It may be said of man he was and is, and is not; and of his works the same, but the Lord was and is, and is to come and his works never end; and he will bring every thing into judgment whether it be good, or whether it be evil; yea, every secret thing, and they shall be revealed upon the house tops.

Almost hidden among the words of this quotation is some quasi-revelatory information either stated by or approved by Joseph Smith as editor. Based on the content of the above quotation, if the Isthmus of Darien (Panama) were the narrow neck of land, then Guatemala would have to be in the land northward. However, the quotation clearly suggests that Zarahemla was located in what today is known as part of Mesoamerica (Guatemala). In the Book of Mormon, Zarahemla is unequivocally located in the land southward, which means that (1) Guatemala is in the land southward, (2) the Isthmus of Panama cannot be the narrow neck of land, and (3) South America cannot be the land southward. Those facts lend quasi-revelatory support for Mesoamerica being the location of the New World events of the Book of Mormon.

Interesting issues. I’m not sure I prefer the term “quasi-revelatory,” but I do think there is a strong case for seeing that Joseph Smith was learning about the marvelous book he had translated, gaining new insights from the findings of scholars that helped him update his own understanding of the text. It’s one of several fascinating issues where we can see that the text of the Book of Mormon is “smarter” than Joseph Smith and not merely his fabrication.

Joseph’s new awareness of the potential of Mesoamerica as the setting for the Book of Mormon, if Stoddard’s treatment is correct, was soon snuffed out by his martyrdom. As the Saints fled from the mobs and began the challenge of an exodus and eking out a living in the Rockies, those insights appear to have slipped away in the popular understanding of the Book of Mormon. The details of geography probably didn’t matter for many decades, but today I would say that those details matter more and for some, may be a valuable topic of study and reflection.

More recommended reading: “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief” by
John E. Clark, discussing some of the New World evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Also consider “Mormon’s Map Puzzle Solved?” by John P. Pratt. Might mention both of these on my Book of Mormon Evidences page.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

16 thoughts on “Away from the Heartland: Joseph Smith, John Lloyd Stephens, and a Mesoamerican Setting for the Book of Mormon

  1. Jeff,

    Wow…thanks for an extremely interesting post. Clark's paper is especially compelling.

    It is extremely important to the LDS church to proof the Book of Mormon is true and authentic. I'm not LDS but I've been studying the church for over 25 years. I've heard too many testimonies to count from church members. These testimonies come from the heart, but they don't have much impact on my belief in the church because I also hear heartfelt testimonies from "born agains", Catholics, etc.

    What impacts my view of the church more than anything is tangible evidence for the BoM. Thanks for providing some very interesting reading material!!

  2. Hmm. I'll have to look into this more, as I've heard quite a few statements that Joseph talked of specific places in North America of being BOM lands.

  3. Good post, Jeff. In addition, do note that any appeal to Joseph Smith's own personal understanding of the text of the Book of Mormon is nothing short of the Intentionalist Fallacy. The author or translator of any text is not the authority in the meaning of the text, the *text* is–to go beyond the text is to engage in such a fallacy.

    Off-topic–I just read your page on LDS practices and read your material on Ignatius–do note that Ignatius was arguing against docetic Gnostics, so he would emphasise the humanity of Christ in his epistles; to read Transubstantiation into that is eisegesis. Just fwiw.

  4. I was looking at what type of articles Joseph Smith was reading in the papers.

    The Brooklyn Eagle of May 17, 1842, reads:

    "Mssrs. Stephens and Catherwood— A gentleman from Central America states that Mssrs. Stephens and Catherwood had been for several weeks among the ruins of Uxmal….they were authorized to remove any portions of the ruins they thought proper. Under this authority they had collected and forwarded to the coast a large quantity of sculpture, together with the identical lintel of wood which Mr. Stephens speaks in his book as being beautifully sculptured and in a remarkable state of preservation."

    There is a June 17 article, but it merely remarks the progress of. Stephens and Catherwood's return voyage via ship.

    To late to be a candidate is a July 30 article describing a fire that destroyed Mr. Catherwood's paintings. A couple of days later it is explained that Mr. Stephens lost a "whole collection of curiousities pieces of ruins, specimens, plans, drawings, &c., made during his last journey to Central America. On Aug. 17 a retraction is made to the effect that the "manuscripts, drawing and specimens … were not in the building at the time."

    On Sept. 2 a Mr. Norman displayed drawings of a ruins "perhaps even more remarkable that even those visited by Stephens and Calderwood."

    On Nov. 24 another interesting article appeared on Central America with speculation about the ancient civilization.

    Clicking on the URL in my name and you can find a search that goes through digital archives of the newspaper.

  5. True, the Heartland Model has a lot of problems, but Rodney Meldrum's efforts have contributed to at least one positive development: FAIR apologists have unequivocally denounced haplotype X as evidence for Nephite colonization. To do so, they appeal to the haplotype's antiquity in the New World and thereby implicitly acknowledge that Native Americans have antedeluvian roots in the western hemisphere, which opens up another can of worms.

    On another topic, does anyone know how or why the hill Cumorah in New York acquired its name?

  6. Anthony,

    The earliest reference to the drumlin in NY being labelled "Cumorah" comes from 1833 by Oliver Cowdery in the periodical, The Evening and Morning Star.

  7. On the topic of the Hill Cumorrah, does the church still have a picture of it at the end of the Book of Mormon? My copy is older and it does have it.

  8. @Anonymous 8:44 PM –

    Don't think too hard. This has already been done and published in the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. In the cover, you will find maps of Middle Earth in which you will see Rohan and Gondor.

  9. "This is a work that ought to be in the hands of every Latter Day Saint; corroborating, as it does, the history of the Book of Mormon. There is no stronger circumstantial evidence of the authenticity of the latter book, can be given, than that contained in Mr. Stephens' work." — Times and Seasons, edited by Joseph Smith

    Has the moment passed? Just the same, I'll go out and buy John Lloyd Stephen's Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan.

    The moment for blogging on this thread might also be passed, but I might come back and add a blog tomorrow. Late for bed now.

  10. I don't really have an 'opinion' about where the Book of Mormon "happened"–

    beyond that I don't know–

    Staying alive and keeping my family alive has taken all my efforts, though now and again to stay alive I post on blogs–


    –but I was astounded at the assertion by Christensen (sp?) that the Jaredites and Nephites were a 'moral' people!

    Moral? They destroyed themselves and each other!

    How on earth can THAT be moral?

    My mouth flew open.

    Because the ravages of syphillis have been found on the skeletons of the Hopewell Indians, they couldn't be Lamanites or Nephites, because THOSE people, as they raped and cannibalized were . . .


    I return you now to your regularly scheduled blog–

  11. Being the Anonymous of Jan. 15, I did buy the book authored by Stephens. I also, tonight, bought Meldrum's book, perhaps because I mistook the co-author, Bruce H. Porter, for Bruce D. Porter. I didn't even notice Meldrum's name, or place it, until I got home.

    One of the top points made in the book is that of Kieth Merrill in the foreward. "I know the book (meaning the Book of Mormon) is authentic through spiritual conviction. . . . My clear conviction about what it is does not include any sure knowledge of where it all took place."

    In other words, the Book of Mormon is true, regardless where it played out.

    Porter and Meldrum restate a case that has been made before, that the prophecies and promises about the United States suggest North America is where the Book of Mormon took place.

    But, along with the Mesoamericanists, I hold open that it well could be that such phrases as "upon this land" refer to the whole of the Americas, not just that part of it where the writer-prophets lived at the time.

    Perhaps most of Book of Mormon history was limited to Mesoamerica, but at some point — whether when they sailed into lands northward or when the Lamanites chased Mormon around — the Book of Mormon domain was much larger.

    Thanks to Porter and Meldrum for their book. I do not know where the Book of Mormon took place, but it is interesting to consider the subject.

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