Those who believe that The Book of Mormon events took place in North America often quote:
In the almost complete absence of written records, one must be permitted to guess, because there is nothing else to do; and when guessing is the only method of determination, one man’s skill is almost as good as another’s. An informed guess is a contradiction of terms, so our initial shock of nondiscovery was tempered by a warm glow of complacency, on finding that the rankest amateur in our party was able to pontificate on the identity and nature of most objects as well as anybody else.
. . . Counterparts to the great ritual complexes of Central America once dotted the entire eastern United States, the most notable being the Hopewell culture centering in Ohio and spreading out for hundreds of miles along the entire length of the Mississippi River. These are now believed to be definitely related to corresponding centers in Mesoamerica.
— Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, “Ancient Temples: What do they Signify?”
Unlike what “Heartland” supporters imply, he wasn’t in agreement with them. The use of the quotation is not problematic, but the interpretation assigned is far from the mark. The late and legendary Hugh Nibley was fascinated by the Hopewell tradition, but he didn’t believe they were part of the Nephite civilization. To him they represented the transfer of Nephite cultural ideas to others before getting wiped out in wars. An argument could be made that he was wrong and the “Heartland” theory represents the main Nephite culture before spreading south. There is not a way at this point to know. One thing that Mesoamerican and “Heartland” supporters can agree on is that a competent New World historical picture is generally out of reach. A lot has been discovered, but what has not been written cannot be read. What has been translated is of a later date with most of the past having been lost or destroyed.
At the time of the publication of The Book of Mormon it was immediately presented as a religious history. Both internal and external documentationleft little room for classifying it as literary invention. That meant that history and geography was of huge importance. The first place proposed was starting at the New York area where Joseph Smith said he found (more accurately was shown) the location of the plates. From there North and South America were assumed to be Book of Mormon lands, with Central America the narrow neck of land. With all the traveling in the narrative such short distances, there was no way such a large area could be the background. Locations were shifted to the immediate New York area while leaving all other places alone. That made comments and discoveries by Joseph Smith in other areas of the country hard to understand except as anomalies. Then the Central American theory become popular and many textual and historical things started making sense to the point there really was no other realistic candidate. All anomalies of extra-narrative had been relegated to curiosities. That is until now. A new approach to the old geography seems rather hopeful. There is some promise to the re-examination, even if some old problems remain.
As with the other geography history discussion, what happened in Jerusalem and the travel down Arabia is considered the same. Once the ship sails, however, disagreement automatically starts what happens next. For many Mesoamerican models, though not all, the ship leaves the fertile strip of land heading out to the Pacific Ocean by following India. For the “Heartland” travel that doesn’t make any logistical sense once leaving the land mass. There is too much ocean for a long trip for someone having no past experience. They instead claim that the journey went around Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean. There is some question if the season wind currents would allow an African rather than Indian shore route. Considering that the use of the liahona continued, the voyage was at least minimally human determined. The storm encountered could be Indian Ocean monsoon or southern Cape related. The point is that for “Heartland” proposals, the ship landed on the Eastern side of the United States.
Joseph Smith and the Nephite Lands
First on the list of evidences for geography is the declarations by The Book of Mormon that the Promised Land will be free from kings and other rulers for the righteous. This is the starting point that must be taken seriously. No other nation can claim that distinction other than the United States since the time of its creation. Any deviation from that has already broken the Covenant set forth by the scripture and promises.
Once that ground rule has been established, there is what Joseph Smith has said on the topic of geography places. There is no doubt he named at least two, if not more than four, places that can be directly connected to Nephite history. Right from the start there is the Hill Cumorah in New York where the Angel delivered the golden plates. With other evidence from journals and statements there cannot be any others in far away lands. This is considered the farthest East of the Nephite history. During the building of Nauvoo, Joseph Smith received a revelation (D&C 125:3) to, “Let them build up a city unto my name upon the land opposite the city of Nauvoo, and let the name of Zarahemla be named upon it.” Although some have pointed out this isn’t the only place given the name, the “Heartland” model points out a few differences from those other locations. There is a spot directly across from the Nauvoo Temple on the west side of the Mississippi perfect for, and probably set apart as, a second Temple. On that spot is also what seems like what is left of an ancient building with three sectionals. Assuming this is the very Zerahemla, then a major city and the River Sidon have been discovered. With such a large river, crossings in the text would have been by boat rather than foot.
To this list can be added the famous “Zelph” incident during the 1834 Zion’s camp expedition:
“The contemplation of the scenery around us produced peculiar sensations in our bosoms; and subsequently the visions of the past being opened to my understanding by the spirit of the Almighty, I discovered that the person whose skeleton was before us was a white Lamanite, a large, thick set man and a man of God. His name was Zelph. He was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea, to the Rocky Mountains . . . He was killed in battle by the arrow found among his ribs, during the last great struggle with the Lamanites and Nephites.” (History of the Church, Vol. 2, pg. 79-80, June 3, 1834, 1948 edition)
The account as written by Willard Richards for the History of the Church under the instructions of Joseph Smith represents more evidence that Nephite lands were in the United States. Instead of a limited geography of either the New York or the Central American models, the “Heartland” extends through most of the Eastern U.S. and a little of Canada next to the Great Lakes. What ties all of this together is the Adena Culture for the Jaredites and Hopwell Interaction Sphere for the Nephites.
Holy Days and Some Artifacts
Both the Mesoamerican and the “Heartland” theorists believe that the Nephites were Israelite practitioners of the Jewish religion. However, there are specific animals, plants, and building structures that must be used for proper celebrations. Substitutes would not be acceptable, but considered blasphemous. If the animals or plants are not available then all religious activities must be stopped. Of course the Nephites are for the most part very pious. That means they have proper sheep, rams, doves, wheat, and barley. During The Book of Mormon times, the United State proposed lands had the most important ones. Mesoamerica has none of them. Animals in that part of the world would be considered unclean. That is a huge problem.
There are also concerns about the Temples in the Mesoamerican lands. They aren’t sectioned off properly and have staircases. The law of Moses demands that the Temple alters must have ramps so Priests, “Do not climb up to My altar with steps, so that your nakedness not be revealed on it” (Ex. 20:23). Cut stones for alters are forbidden while ones found in Mesoarmerica are almost all shaped. The flaw in this argument is, as Hugh Nibley points out, all the picturesque Temples in this part of the world are apostate. Still, there isn’t much mention of the simple mound structures like across the Eastern United States that would be more acceptable.
There is more on the subject of religious requirements and how North America is a better choice in the video presentation Holy Days if interested.
Aside from all the religious requirements, there are a number of supposed artifacts used to bolster North America as the Promosed Land of the Nephites. Many of them have Hebrew, Cuniform, Egyptian hyrogliphics, and other writing that shouldn’t be found. A number of Hebrew relics include the Ohio “Keystone” rock, The Bat Creek Stone inscription, the Lake Waramaug boulders, and most important of all the Ohio Decalogue Stone. Another set of important finds are the numerous Michigan Tablets that have a mix of Egyptian and Biblical scenes. If any of these were to be accepted as authentic then a revision of the Americas would be required. As expected, all of them are considered fakes and frauds by mainstream archaeologists.
Positives and Problems
One of the biggest surprises for the “Heartland” supporters is the DNA evidence among the Eastern U.S. Indians. There is among a few of them DNA halagroup Xa similar to a few Jews in Israel. This should be a huge discovery and a boost to their claims, but the time when it would be introduced is way off. Scientists believe it to be a much earlier 10,000 year old ancestral group of migrants. Yet another blow is the belief they came from a minority Siberian Asian ancestry sub-X halagroup unrelated to the Jewish population. As the saying goes, you can never win for trying.
North America has its climate problems. Close readings of The Book of Mormon indicate a warm climate with no mention of getting cold:
In Alma 14, Alma and Amulek were stripped naked and suffered “many days”. . . This would have been approximately ninety-six days later. This date corresponds to around the first week of January. The minimum amount of time they would have spent in that condition would have been five days . . .
Also, the clothing mentioned in The Book of Mormon is not consistent with the climate of North America. To the contrary, we read about them wearing “loincloths”, “leathern girdles”, etc. This kind of clothing would not be conducive to the cold climate of the Great Lakes region.
Probably the biggest weakness for the “Heartland” is lack of verification and sourcing. Much of the artifacts used to bolster the theory as was said are considered frauds and fakes. They might argue bias and a plot to protect “Bering Straight” orthodoxy, but the mainstream will not recognize the finds. It might be because of this there is very little concern for modern research with hardly any used as references. Most of the information is based on late 1800 to early 1900 articles and interviews. The reasoning is experts ignore folk evidence and Indian legends. Even the dates are off from acceptable timelines. The Adena are considered by the mainstream from 1000 BC to 200 BC instead of 1400 BC to 600 BC, and the Hopewell are 200 BC to 400 AD instead the 600 BC starting date. Where some of the information used as evidence comes from is not explained. This makes it hard for verification in many instances.
The strongest, although less scientific, aspect of the “Heartland” model is an adherence to scriptural prophecy and older traditions. It doesn’t have to make as many excuses for why Joseph Smith said this or indicated that. Not perfect for sure, but much is taken at face value that has been discarded by other apologists as naive or mistaken. Joseph Smith’s early reported claims that The Book of Mormon took place in the U.S. while pointing out physical places of importance like Nephite alters returns to the forefront. This is a refreshing viewpoint that others just don’t have the ability to incorporate into their theories. It doesn’t matter if Joseph Smith found the discoveries in Mesoamerica outstanding and added evidence. He never rejected the earlier finds in North America as actual parts of Nephite and Lamanite history. Now if only the “Heartland” advocates could be a lot more careful and professional with their research, then they could be a formidable contender.