Vague Geography

In our model of the lands of the Book of Mormon in Baja California and the North American Southwest, we attempt to use the information provided in the text of the Book of Mormon to identify the actual lands that it refers to with as much accuracy as possible. As we research this subject, it is vital that we understand the limitations inherent to this endeavor.

One of the most prominent criticisms mentioned in relation to Baja models is that they do not match some of the conclusions that other authors assert in their own internal models of the lands of the Book of Mormon.

One of our recent articles focused on how internal models can lead us to inappropriate conclusions about the meanings of various references in the text of the Book of Mormon and we cited two prominent assertions that are common in internal models that are not necessarily justified.

This article is meant to expound on that topic. In this article we will discuss various types of references to geography along with some general considerations of each type. Although this discussion points out many weaknesses that internal models rarely consider, none of these weaknesses is presented in defense of the details of our model. They are only presented to demonstrate how complexity that is very important can be easily, even accidentally, hidden by the use of internal models which tend to present strict interpretations of verses related to geography.

The Land of California

California was the 31st state to enter the union of the United States of America. In 1759, a London publishing firm published an English translation of Manuel Venegas’ “Noticia de la California” (1957), calling it “A natural and civil history of California”, but the subject of Venegas’ work was not the state of California. After all, the United States didn’t exist in the mid-seventeenth century when the book was published. Venegas was writing about the Baja California peninsula. At the time of Venegas’ writing, the name “California” referred to the peninsula, not the land to the north where the State of California exists today. Today the name “California” refers to an entirely different geographical location than it did just a few centuries ago.

Place names do not necessarily stay constant over time and even when place names do stay relatively constant, the boundaries of the lands that they refer to often change based on political and cultural changes. The fact that place names can refer to different places at different times is a significant consideration in our work. Models of the Lands of the Book of Mormon should provide the most accurate information possible, but should also allow for the possibility that they may not be entirely correct.

Changes to place names happened during Book of Mormon times. Sometimes the text tells us about these changes quite clearly, other times the changes are more subtle, but are still sometimes detectable.

Named Cultural and Political Areas

The Book of Mormon mentions cultural and political boundaries like “the land of Nephi”, “the land of Zarahemla”, and others. Although these types of references refer to geographical areas, the geographical boundaries of these lands changed over time. For instance, during the story of the mission of the sons of Mosiah among the Lamanites, Mormon takes time to describe the political boundary between the Lamanites and the Nephites at that time, showing us how the Nephites were “nearly surrounded” by the Lamanites with Lamanite populations not just living south of Zarahemla, but also living in wildernesses to the east and to the west of Zarahemla as well.

“Now, the more idle part of the Lamanites lived in the wilderness, and dwelt in tents; and they were spread through the wilderness on the west, in the land of Nephi; yea, and also on the west of the land of Zarahemla, in the borders by the seashore, and on the west in the land of Nephi, in the place of their fathers’ first inheritance, and thus bordering along by the seashore. And also there were many Lamanites on the east by the seashore, whither the Nephites had driven them. And thus the Nephites were nearly surrounded by the Lamanites” -(Alma 22:28-29)

These boundaries that Mormon described did not stay the same. After suffering losses at the hands of the Lamanites, Captain Moroni intentionally altered the political borders that separated the Nephites from the Lamanites. In particular, he took over the lands that were east and west of Zarahamla, driving out the Lamanites, and causing his people to intentionally settle and fortify those lands:

“And it came to pass that Moroni caused that his armies should go forth into the east wilderness; yea, and they went forth and drove all the Lamanites who were in the east wilderness into their own lands, which were south of the land of Zarahemla. And the land of Nephi did run in a straight course from the east sea to the west. And…he caused that the inhabitants who were in the land of Zarahemla and in the land round about should go forth into the east wilderness, even to the borders by the seashore, and possess the land. And he also placed armies on the south, in the borders of their possessions…And thus he cut off all the strongholds of the Lamanites in the east wilderness, yea, and also on the west, fortifying the line between the Nephites and the Lamanites, between the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi, from the west sea, running by the head of the river Sidon—the Nephites possessing all the land northward, yea, even all the land which was northward of the land Bountiful, according to their pleasure.” -(Alma 50:7-11)

After Moroni’s changes, the Nephites were no longer “nearly surrounded” by the Lamanites. Instead, “the land of Nephi did run in a straight course from the east sea to the west” and the line between the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi was intentionally settled and fortified.

Political boundaries can and do change over time. This means that “the land of Nephi” and “the land of Zarahemla” can only be identified with a certain amount of precision and we must understand that one textual reference to a named cultural or political area does not necessarily reference the same thing as another textual reference to that same name at a different point in time.

Geographical References Relative to Other Geographical References

Many references to features, such as cities, lands, mountains, wildernesses, and so forth are given in relation to other such features. For instance:

“[Alma] traveled three days’ journey on the north of the land of Melek; and he came to a city which was called Ammonihah” -(Alma 8:6)

Apparently, if we know where Melek was, we would have some idea where Ammonihah was, so here’s what we know about the location of Melek:

Alma…took his journey over into the land of Melek, on the west of the river Sidon…” (Alma 8:1-3)

Now that we know that Melek is west of the river Sidon. We could likewise quote relative references to the river Sidon, but you get the point. Many references to geography depend on other references to geography. Usually these kinds of references tend to stay the same over time. For instance, it is unlikely that Melek would ever NOT be west of Sidon and it is unlikely that Ammonihah would ever NOT be 3 days’ journey north of Melek.

Unfortunately, there is still some potential for references like these to become inaccurate over time. For example, what if the river Sidon changed its course? Or what if Melek was destroyed in a flood and subsequently rebuilt in a safer location on the other side of Sidon? These types of changes seldom happen, but our goal is to model lands and events that took place millennia ago. The Book of Mormon describes “great mountains” taking the place of cities, cities sinking into the ocean, and many other such disasters.

Geographical References Relative to Climate

Some references to geography in the Book of Mormon are given in relation to features that can vary based on the climate and other factors. Rivers, lakes, springs, geysers, deserts, shorelines, and many other geographic features are directly related to rainfall and other climate-related factors. Changes in precipitation, temperature, sea-level, wind direction, wind strength, etc. have direct effects on geography. As a result, we must not just look at the geography of our model the way the model lands exit today. Instead, we should do our best to understand what the lands were like during Book of Mormon times.

Duplicate Names

Sometimes two or more places have the same name. We mentioned above that the meaning of the name “California” referenced different places at different times in modern history. Similarly, the name “land of Nephi” references different places at different times in the Book of Mormon. As mentioned above, the “land of Nephi” shared a political boundary with the Nephite lands near Zarahemla, but we also read that there was a “land of Nephi” in the “land of Lehi-Nephi” which was far away from Zarahemla:

“they knew not the course they should travel in the wilderness to go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi; therefore they wandered many days in the wilderness, even forty days did they wander. And when they had wandered forty days they came to a hill, which is north of the land of Shilom…and they went down into the land of Nephi.” (Mosiah 7:4-7)

Another less obvious reference to two places with the same name is the City of Nephihah. When Amalikiah’s armies invaded the lands east of Zarahemla, there is a verse in the Book of Mormon that might seem like it contradicts itself:

“And those who fled out of the city of Moroni came to the city of Nephihah…But…Amalickiah would not suffer the Lamanites to go against the city of Nephihah to battle, but kept them down by the seashore…And thus he went on, taking possession of many cities, the city of Nephihah, and the city of Lehi, and the city of Morianton, and the city of Omner, and the city of Gid, and the city of Mulek, all of which were on the east borders by the seashore.” (Alma 51:24-26)

Doesn’t that sound strange? It says that instead of attacking Nephihah, he kept his armies down by the seashore where he took possession of Nephihah. One possible interpretation is that the city of Nephihah existed on the east borders by the seashore and that the text is simply saying that Amalikiah paused before taking possession of the city. Another possibility is that there were actually two cities named Nephihah with one existing by the seashore while the other was an inland location.

Fortunately, there are some other references in the text that can clear this up for us. Those verses quoted above say that Amalikiah took possession of Nephihah, but later on in the war there is another account of Nephihah being conquered by the Lamanites:

“the people of Nephihah, who were gathered together from the city of Moroni and the city of Lehi and the city of Morianton, were attacked by the Lamanites…by the command of Ammoron they came forth against the people of Nephihah…And their armies were so numerous that the remainder of the people of Nephihah were obliged to flee before them; and…Moroni had supposed that there should be men sent to the city of Nephihah…knowing that it was easier to keep the city from falling into the hands of the Lamanites than to retake it from them” (Alma 59:7-9)

There were two cities called Nephihah. One was by the seashore and was captured by Amalikiah. The other was not by the seashore and was the city that the fugitives from the city of Moroni fled to when their city fell to Amalikiah. This second city of Nephihah had clearly not fallen into the hands of the Lamanites before Ammoron’s army captured it later on in the war.

Discussion:

There are clearly a lot of reasons why some geographical references from the Book of Mormon might be difficult to accurately identify in modern times. This doesn’t mean that the geographical references in the Book of Mormon aren’t accurate and it certainly doesn’t give us license to create models that run contrary to textual references. It just means that we should be very conservative about making strict internal interpretations about the geography of the lands of the Book of Mormon.

We mentioned in a previous article that internal models are usually created so that authors can dumb-down the textual references into easy-to-understand internal maps and that this allows models to hide significant weaknesses behind long-winded monologues which are meant to justify strict interpretations to vague geographical references.

Like we said before, a model of the Book of Mormon lands is valid if it is consistent with a reasonable reading of the text. It doesn’t need to conform to anybody’s internal model. It does need to conform to the text of the Book of Mormon.

We present a model of the Book of Mormon lands in Baja California and the North American Southwest. We demonstrate conformity to the text of the Book of Mormon by providing detailed depictions of every geographical reference in the text. We also provide data files so that anybody who is interested can explore those references for themselves.

Thank you for taking time to consider these thoughts on this subject.

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