It was a year ago this week, I spent three days at two Book of Mormon conferences on the same weekend. The 21st International Book of Mormon Evidence Conference believes the Book of Mormon took place in North America (the Heartland theory), while the Book of Mormon Central 2018 Conference believes the Book of Mormon all took place in Central America (the MesoAmerican theory). With over a hundred other theories, these two are by far the predominant.
If you are retired, like me, and have nothing better to do, what could beat sitting on your fanny for 36 hours listening to credentialed and not-so-credentialed “experts” share their latest Book of Mormon evidence and take pot-shots at each other? Admittedly, most of the “experts” at the first conference didn’t have nearly as many letters after their name, and other than a few notable presentations that riled me (which I will address in my second article in this series), I enjoyed most of them.
Perhaps that paints a much worse picture than intended, but at the Book of Mormon Evidence Conference in the Davis Convention Center in Layton, I couldn’t help feeling like I was in a shooting match against those of other close-minded but opposite opinions who happened to be of the same faith (except one Baptist minister whom I liked a lot and will mention later). There, presenters fired shots across the BYU scholarly bow, included things like one Cumorah, 7 letters, DNA and the age of the earth, wolves and sheep, and Book of Mormon “fantasy maps” used in classes at the school with the “Y” on the mountain.
If you have followed these two camps over the last fifteen years, you can count over 700 pages of web content where the two sides call each other out by name at varying levels of civility from kindness to warnings of apostasy. The MesoAmerican camp got off to the strongest start with articles against the Heartland as early as 2003, and even the Deseret News took a stab occasionally at trying to moderate the Book of Mormon evidence and geography controversy. But I would say that Jonathan Neville, a lawyer from the Heartland camp (one of the few with letters after his name) is the one whose gun barrel stays the hottest lately (and though I don’t fully agree with him he really keeps me entertained) with a blog he calls Book of Mormon Wars (are over).
What I really wanted to see was Book of Mormon Central and the Firm Foundation square off in civil debates behind closed doors like they used to do on campus at BYU when I was growing up. Instead, we debate without constraint hidden in our office, from web pages posted all over the Internet where friends, enemies, and youth choose their favorite opinion to comment, like, and share, and get no closer to the truth, or more importantly, to Zion—not!
Sad to say, us old timers who are battle-hardened, seem to do fine; but our children and grandchildren aren’t holding up so well. I’ve lost a few very close to me, how about you?
I remember President Benson warning us again that we remain under condemnation until we repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon. And just recently while reading D&C 84:56–58, I noticed for the first time that the scourge and judgment to be poured out would be upon the “children of Zion, even all.”
The “children of Zion,” our young people… I think it’s happening.
Luckily, about all I saw was white hair in the audience and motorhomes in the parking lots at either conference, with hardly any young people. Less collateral damage.
I checked at the registration desk and there were 4,000 attendees at the Book of Mormon conference and over 500 at Book of Mormon Central. The Meso team has grown a lot since two years ago when they reported to my boss only 85 people. And I was really impressed with the 53,000 likes on their Facebook page though, that’s pretty strong. The Heartland team reports about 70,000 in their email database, but they better look in their rear view mirror. I know likes aren’t the same as email addresses, but the Book of Mormon Central team has about a dozen millennials on staff who know how to get social media working for them. Their movies are awesome, I just wish they would come up with something a bit more interesting and relevant to the millennials than the KnowWhys… I’m just saying, they are a bit on the periphery, let’s tackle the real issues, shall we?
For example, several “Heartland” Book of Mormon presenters felt sure they could prove that Zarahemla was across the river from Nauvoo and that there is only one Cumorah, and it is in New York. (At least they actually have a place pinned down, unlike the Mesoamerican group who are still looking for an actual site.) And there were several complaints that even though Cumorah is where the Church actually celebrates the pageant, the pageant staff and leadership won’t admit anything at all about it actually being the real place. I hear there is a new site to visit coming online near Cumorah, something about Oliver Cowdery?
One very refreshing presenter I need to call out was Wayne May who did not contend at all, but ended his very interesting presentation with the statement “we report, you decide.” That’s what I’m talking about. This guy has read the Journalism Code about not skewing what you report. It’s hard to find. The BYU guys pound on him particularly hard, but he is one of my favorites!
“Since geographical information does not provide a basis for belief and does not compel one to believe, it is proper to point out that studying Book of Mormon geography is a secular endeavor, not a religious endeavor. Just like biblical archaeology is non-theological, studying any supposed geography of the Book of Mormon, while interesting, should not be confused with religious endeavors related to the book.” —FairMormon
In interesting contrast on Saturday at the Book of Mormon Central 2018 Conference in the convention center in Provo, the “MesoAmerican” camp tried to convince the audience that the true location of Zarahemla is in the Yucatan or Guatemala. (If you don’t know this you’ve never been on a cruise to Mexico or you’ve been under a lava rock for 70 years.)
The coolest presentation at either conference was the powerful one on stylometry research done on the many characters in the Book of Mormon, it was a high point, to say the least. And constructive. Now that’s something we can use from the scholars! It got my colleague Darryl Alder thinking about applying stylometry to solving the biggest problem the global scholars have with Isaiah. I hope our BYU scholar team has the backbone to run the peer-review gauntlet to take that one on! (I would rather watch that contest than reruns of Jimmer sinking three-pointers in the Utah game.)
At the Book of Mormon Central conference, Rob Jex gave us a cool sneak preview from the Priesthood and Family Department on the huge project at the Church to film the Book of Mormon. Rob was smart, he completely stayed out of the fray. And I’m sure glad that John Bytheway was there to add fun and the spirit that was much needed. Tyler Griffin ended the day with what his heartland friends call the “fantasy map,” but I sure loved his humble and spirit-filled approach. I’m also glad he takes a heavy teaching load off the research scholars at BYU and doesn’t have to waste his knowledge and career writing peer-reviewed articles that the most of the world never read like 80% of his colleagues.
I went to both conferences looking for ideas to talk about but came away confused at this surprising hubris from both sides! All I can say is that I am glad I read and believe the Book of Mormon for myself. It’s interesting that one of the most consistent themes in the Book of Mormon is contention among God’s people, it looks like that same theme is alive and well today.
I miss the day when President Monson pulled people from both sides of an argument into a room, told them they were hurting and embarrassing the church, looked into their eyes for a few minutes, and told them not to leave the room until they work it out! They did! Easy! Done! My personal theory is that the Lord is restraining His servants to see what we as a people will do. I’m a bit embarrassed at our performance, I’m afraid. Don’t worry, it’s just a theory, and I’m just an old guy who follows current events, who says too much hiding behind a pen name.
Over two thousand years ago, in this book we are talking about, there were nearly a dozen people with followers who chose to put -ites after their names. Today we seem to be forming up in Meldrumites, Nevillites, Mayites, Heartlandites, Welchites, Sorensonites, Wrightites, Hullites, Mesoites, Rosenvallites, Bajaites, Sessionites, UMites, Darwinites, Huttonites, Parryites, Ludlowites, Gileadites, Madsenites, Nibleyites, McConkieites, and sure enough, the list of -ites are getting bigger.
Christ warned us that all things that have been, shall be again. It happened to the Adamites, the Noahites, the Jaredites, the Nephites. Is it happening to us? Is that what the Book of Mormon is warning us about? Not the geography? Why do we separate ourselves and contend against our own people?
Christ gave us one name to unite us… His.
What are we thinking? For nearly two hundred years, both the world and the saints have put the Book of Mormon on trial. But if you look at it from God’s perspective, the Book of Mormon isn’t on trial… we are.
Maybe this actually is the trial… contention… murmuring… disputations… mercy… loving kindness… meekness… humility. It might be, but I’m not sure it’s DNA or geography.
Isn’t there a scripture where Christ himself reminds us “If ye are not one ye are not mine?”
The goal isn’t to find out where Nephi landed his boat. If Christ wanted us to know, He could clearly have told us. Several times Nephite prophets saw things that they wanted to warn us about, but Christ either gave them Isaiah or just forbad them saying, “I will try the faith of my people.” Where is the reference to that scripture? (I’m not telling you, I’m not a scholar anymore, I don’t get paid enough, I do backlinks, I don’t do footnotes, go search it for yourself, Google it!)
But in spite of concerning trends, several times at both conferences I came to feel God’s spirit through a deeper understanding of the Book of Mormon, and I got some of what I sought. I guess you get what you look for, but I also got a good serving of disputation and contention too, which is sad. Aren’t we bigger than that? In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul asked, “Is Christ divided?” In verse 10, he said,
Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.
Interestingly among the presenters, all three days, Dr. Lynn Ridenhour, a Baptist minister, understood civility and unity the most. And believe it or not, he says he takes many of his opinions from the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith himself! He told attendees he looked for the common good in all religions and said that Joseph Smith did the same when he said:
“If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.”
Truth will cut its own way. I like that.
Dr. Ridenhour then asked for an “Amen.” We gave it to him and a few hallelujahs too as he explained what he had learned from the man Joseph and the Book of Mormon. He said that Joseph was tolerant of all, that he loved his enemies (even when tarred and feathered), that he loved to play with children and was a real person who was born again. Of the book, he said that he read it cover to cover to find the “weird,” but instead found a witness for Christ, “believing from the very first page to the last.” He pointed out that Christ is the central figure of the Book and that while the New Testament mentions the Lord in every 2.3 verses, in the Book of Mormon that rate is 1.7, a full 25% more frequently than in the New Testament. He said that of all the 6,000 books he owns, “the Book of Mormon is the most nonsectarian, a book for every Catholic, for every Lutheran, for every Baptist, and even for every Jew!”
Very interesting that the best example of civility and unity I could find is a Baptist Minister who could teach us Mormons a few things from our founding prophet and our own book.
At both conferences, of course, I was looking for compelling content about Isaiah. I was rewarded with Robert Kay’s explanation of understanding Jewish writing and composition; with Avraham Gileadi’s end-time prophecies in Isaiah; and John Bytheway, the author of “Isaiah for Airheads”, who gave a fun and interesting treatment of soils in the New Testament and Isaiah.
By-the-way, is Isaiah for Airheads another way of saying Isaiah for Dummies? John said we could find his book at the local thrift store or Deseret Industries, I wish it were. It’s actually still one of the hottest sellers at Deseret Book, I’ve looked.
We made connections with all three speakers and will be inviting them to participate in our SearchIsaiah project. We are still trying to get Matt Roper and Paul Fields to get back with us about their amazing research on Stylometry, and we will update you when we do!
NOTE: I’m updating this article. In fact, I riled so many people, I’m starting a series pulling on this thread with a pair of pliers. Some like my thoughts, many don’t; I’m ok with that. My boss is getting asked who Pop Isaiah is, some think I should be fired. (So far he says he likes how I write, and I have a two-year contract.) I’m a bit crotchety, I write in the opinion column, and I hide behind a pen name like lots of you commenters do. I’m inviting you to share your best thinking, and be blunt, I will be. And I’m warning you, I tend to stoke the fire, it keeps me warm. – Pop
PS: I get asked a lot so here is a little more about the man they call Pop Isaiah…