The question of precisely where the events chronicled in the Book of Mormon took place arises naturally since to date neither the record itself nor the Lord through his prophets has revealed its New World setting in terms that permit conclusive linkages to modern-day locales. Historically, Latter-day Saint speculation on the subject has spawned several possible correlations between the geography of the Americas and the geographic clues discoverable in the Book of Mormon. Two such interpretations have predominated: the hemispheric model (with Book of Mormon lands encompassing North, Central, and South America) and the limited geography model (a restricted New World setting on the order of hundreds rather than thousands of miles).
The earliest and best-known proponent of the hemispheric model was Orson Pratt, who espoused it as early as 18321 and continued to teach it for decades. Throughout the nineteenth century, many Latter-day Saint writers followed Pratt’s model, and eventually his geographical ideas were incorporated into the footnotes of the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon. The popularity of the hemispheric model notwithstanding, it simply is not clear whether it was the result of prophetic revelation or merely the outgrowth of the personal ideas and assumptions of the Prophet Joseph Smith and other brethren. For this reason, certain anecdotal statements attributed to Joseph Smith regarding Lehi’s landing in Chile2 and the identity of a deceased “white Lamanite” warrior (whose skeletal remains were found by members of Zion’s Camp in western Illinois)3 are problematic and not especially helpful in efforts to reconstruct an authoritative geography for the Book of Mormon.
Neither Book of Mormon prophecies nor Joseph Smith’s account of Moroni’s visit requires an all-inclusive hemispheric setting.4 Moreover, the diversity of nineteenth-century opinion, even among church leaders, on key aspects of the hemispheric model is striking, suggesting fluidity of thought in the absence of prophetic revelation that could settle the issue. In the 1840s, the publication of John L. Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan—a best-selling book with fabulous illustrations of ruins in Central America attesting a high level of civilization—brought a measure of unity to the ongoing discussion by turning attention to Mesoamerica as a plausible arena of Book of Mormon events.5 Yet there were inevitable points of disagreement on crucial details, such as the location of Lehi’s landing, the lands of Nephi and Zarahemla, and the narrow neck of land that connected two major blocks of territory. In the ensuing decades, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints influenced ongoing discussion of the geographic question by refusing to endorse any one interpretation, emphasizing the doctrinal teachings of the Book of Mormon, encouraging more thorough scripture study in order to better sort out geographic details, and removing Orson Pratt’s footnotes from the 1920 edition of the Book of Mormon. The church clearly had no authoritative stance on what was, and remains, an open issue.
Since the early twentieth century, many scholars and other serious students of the Book of Mormon have come to favor the limited geography model, with Mesoamerica (extending from southern Mexico to Guatemala) as the Book of Mormon homeland and New York’s Hill Cumorah as the repository of Mormon’s record but not the scene of the final Nephite-Lamanite battles. Notwithstanding its various permutations regarding real-world correlations, this interpretation, with antecedents apparent in the 1840s, seems to best match the complex requirements of the scriptural text itself while remaining tenable after years of rigorous examination in light of the archaeological and cultural record of ancient Mesoamerica.6 Interpretations of Book of Mormon geography are obviously of lesser importance than the spiritual and eternal messages of the scriptural record itself. Still, as in all other fields of knowledge, such theories have their place; each must be evaluated on its own merits, and for those who continue to humbly and diligently seek truth, the promise is given that “my grace shall attend you” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:78).