One of the more frustrating yet tantalizing aspects of the Book of Mormon is determining the geographical location of the Book of Mormon heartlands. Since the Book of Mormon does not come equipped with map showing the heartlands of the Nephites and Lamanites, vigorous debate over the locations has sprung up. In this previous post on October 17th, 2009, I summarized six major theories: the Tehuantepec Mesoamerican Theory, the Caribbean Mesoamerican Theory, the Baja Peninsula Theory, the Great Lakes Theory, the Malay Peninsula Theory, and the Peruvian Theory.
For the sake of clarification, any further references to the Mesoamerican Theory in this post apply solely to the Tehuantepec Mesoamerican Theory.
Jeff Lindsay of Mormanity tells us that now, in preparation for a Book of Mormon Lands Conference to be held at the Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City on October 23rd, 2010, Ted Stoddard has published an essay entitled "Critical Criteria for Identifying the New World Lands of the Book of Mormon: Implications for the Heartland Model and the Mesoamerica Model", in which he provides even more support for the Mesoamerican Theory or Model. Stoddard criticizes the traditional approach used by most researchers to associate the initial “facts of the Book of Mormon” with geographic specifics as found in the Book of Mormon. Instead, he suggests that once we have identified the overall location of the New World lands of the Book of Mormon, we should then let the land itself help us with the geography of the Book of Mormon. He also advocates using non-geographical references to help us zero in on the Book of Mormon homelands. Towards that end, Stoddard proposes four non-geographic critical criteria to be used:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
His contention here is that any territory being proposed as the location of the New World lands of the Book of Mormon must satisfy all four non-geographic critical criteria. Failure to meet any one of the four by a proposed territory should automatically disqualify that territory from further consideration.
Stoddard suggests that once the non-geographic critical criteria point to the appropriate New World territory of the Book of Mormon, readers and scholars should be able to reinforce the validity of the non-geographic critical criteria by identifying with relative precision such primary Book of Mormon geographic territories as the narrow neck of land, narrow pass, land northward, land of Desolation, land of Moron, hill Shim, hill Ramah/Cumorah, waters of Ripliancum, place where the sea divides the land, land which was northward, east sea, west sea, place of Lehi’s landing, land southward, river Sidon, land of Zarahemla, wilderness of Hermounts, land of Manti, east wilderness, narrow strip of wilderness, land of Nephi, waters of Mormon, land of pure water, land of Bountiful, and land among many waters. Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that fit together, these geographic territories should likewise “fit together” to comprise Mormon’s map of Book of Mormon lands. At this point, the land should take over in dictating the unique features of Mormon’s map.
Of course, there are other non-geographical accounts from within the Book of Mormon which can be used to support the Mesoamerican Theory as preferential. These include the great cataclysm of 33 A.D. after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, when the locale was rocked by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, a hurricane-force storm, and possible coastal tsunamis, all within a three-hour period; a description of roots and plants available to counteract fevers, and the lack of any mention of snowfall in the Book of Mormon (which would rule out the Great Lakes Theory).
The leadership of the LDS Church has re-affirmed that there is no official "preferred" geographical model. In addition, the spiritual message conveyed by the Book of Mormon supersedes any geographical ambiguity; since it corroborates the Bible, the Book of Mormon can be considered "America's Witness To Christ". Thus the spiritual message takes precedence; the geography is like a garnish. Nevertheless, the desire to determine the geography of the Book of Mormon is still a worthy desire, because not everyone is attracted to Mormonism for the same reasons. While most desire the spiritual experience, some are attracted intellectually to the logic of Mormonism; namely, the fact that it answers more questions and offers more possibilities than the other belief systems.