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Scholar looks into the geography of the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is widely viewed as the quintessentially American scripture of a quintessentially American faith, but in strictly geographical terms this designation is more complicated than it might first appear. The Book’s modern manifestation is definitely American – Joseph Smith, New York farmer, said that he dug it out of a hill near his home. Believers regard the text as having an ancient history also, though, and here the geography is less clear. According to the text, its authors were pre-Columbian inhabitants of the New World, but its geographical terms are oblique: The characters war and proselytize over a “land northward” and a “land southward,” connected by “a narrow neck of land.” Many readers have assumed that what’s described is the Western Hemisphere – North and South America connected by the isthmus of Central America. Among other things, though, this scale is too vast for the characters’ descriptions of their travel: With the farthest cities mere days apart, the whole story seems to take place within a few hundred square miles. For some time, conventional wisdom has identified that area as Mesoamerica, stretching from modern-day central Mexico to Honduras. Mesoamerica hosted advanced pre-Columbian civilizations, the thinking goes, and the land forms fit, to a certain eye. The LDS Church has no official stance on the matter, but it has tacitly endorsed this view. Significant Church resources are committed to archaeological and ethnographic projects in Mesoamerica, and Church-sanctioned visualizations of the Book of Mormon story, replete with palm trees, do not appear to be set in, say, southern Illinois.
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