Friday, November 11, 2011

Criticisms and Responses: The Hill Cumorah's Location

There are various primary criticisms that tend to be hurled at the Book of Mormon, but which have been addressed many times. One need only use Google to dredge them up, but similarly, Google can be used to find the counter-arguments. More people ought to do the latter when they see the former. This series of posts represents my responses to those criticisms.   

Criticism: If the evidence points to Mesoamerica as the location of Book of Mormon history, then the final battle at the Hill Cumorah couldn't have happened in the state of New York. It's too far away!

Response: That one, in retrospect, has baffled some LDS folks as well. When the theory of pan-American Nephite and Lamanite societies persisted, it made perfect sense that the battle and where Moroni buried the plates were one and the same. One thing that didn't make sense was the the manner in which Moroni had wandered after the Nephite genocide. He was a Nephite and the Lamanites killed every Nephite they saw, so he naturally had to "get outta Dodge" indefinitely. Why, then, would he risk a) returning to the battle site and being killed before even having a chance to bury the plates and b) having the plates discovered and destroyed by Lamanites (who, the Book of Mormon states, had a keen interest in erasing Nephite claims to their territories, and thus the very records from Nephite history, just as pharaohs did to each other in Egypt).

That pan-American theory wasn't held by everyone, though. We do have an editorial in the Times and Seasons, from the pen of Joseph Smith:
Central America, or Guatimala [the whole of what we now call Central America was then known as Guatemala], is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien [Panama] 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.
When the Mesoamerican model was proposed by Mormon scholars in the latter half of the 20th century, it started to make more sense. One very strong clue is that there are multiple descriptions in the Book of Mormon of travels between areas near the battlefield hill Cumorah (a.k.a. Ramah) that are decidedly Mesoamerican in context and do not support a 3,000 mile detour north to present-day New York and back. Rather, those on-foot journeys happen in a matter of a few days.

So, it seems more likely that Moroni really "got outta Dodge" by going so far north, and that is consistent with his own description of having to wander "whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life" because the Lamanites "put to death every Nephite that will not deny the Christ". It also makes sense in terms of God seeing far enough ahead to know that the plates would lay completely undiscovered and undisturbed in an area so relatively sparsely populated for so long until Europeans began to homestead there.

Another clue, when you read more closely, is that Moroni never actually claims to have returned to the battle site, nor does he claim to be burying the final plates in a hill called Cumorah. He just says he's "sealing up these records" (Moroni 10:2). However, Moroni's father, Mormon, does hide his set of plates and other records in the hill Cumorah near the battlefield Cumorah (Mormon 6:6). Because Mormon, before he dies, says he hid all the records "save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni", there is no evidence to suggest that Moroni's set of final plates, the ones he would turn over to Joseph over 1400 years later were hid in the same hill. Those are all interpretations that were overlaid on that narrative by those of us reading it in _our_ day.  We members of the LDS Church and other commentators gave the name "Cumorah" to the hill where Joseph found the plates under our own assumption that it was the very same Cumorah, near the battlefield, in which Mormon had hid his records. Moroni never wrote that his own hiding place was called "Cumorah", nor claimed to have buried it in the same place as the battle.

This, of course, is a common misunderstanding about the book by "Witnessers". Newcomers to the Book of Mormon (especially those who've never actually read it) can't be blamed for repeating it since it is difficult sometimes, even for faithful and knowlegable members of the church, to separate LDS lore from what our texts actually say. And it all fits perfectly with Hugh Nibley's pointed analysis and observation that people love to attack the Book of Mormon by first attributing to it something that it does not actually say, then attacking those points.

For more extensive commentary and analysis on the Cumorah subject, see