In 1830 Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon which became one of the foundational texts for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church.
There are lots of theological problems with Mormonism, but one of my biggest concerns is historical since Smith claims that the Book of Mormon is a divinely revealed text that gives an alternate history of the Americas and of Jesus Christ’s Incarnation.
The book follows the descendants of Lehi, a righteous man living at the time of the prophet Jeremiah, who traveled with his family from Jerusalem across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. The Book of Mormon is divided into chapters based on the allegedly different authors who recorded the history of Lehi’s descendants. The two primary lines of Lehi were the Nephites and the Lamanites, both of whom built elaborate cities and engaged in several massive and violent wars with each other. The high point of the Book of Mormon takes place in 3rd Nephi, when Jesus appears to the Nephites shortly after his Resurrection and preaches the gospel to them.
The book concludes with the testimony of Moroni, who was the only Nephite to survive a final battle with the Lamanites in the fifth century (the Lamanites then became the ancestors of modern Native Americans). Before he died, Moroni gathered the golden plates that recorded the history of his people and buried them on a hillside. After his death, Moroni became an angel and later revealed to Joseph Smith the location of the plates (which turned out to be in upstate New York).
It’s an interesting story, but one reason I think it is just a story is because there is no Mormon consensus on where these historical events took place. In short, in order to believe in the Book of Mormon I need a map of the Book of Mormon and there isn’t one. Anywhere.
Most Bibles contain maps illustrating where important biblical events took place. You can visit the ruins of cities described in the Bible. If you get atheist, Christian, and Jewish scholars together, they can roughly agree on where the events allegedly took place and confirm the existence of cities and sites in those places, even if an atheist or a Jew denies certain miracles or historical events took place there.
Nothing comparable can be said about the Book of Mormon.
Some Mormons say the events of the book take place across North and South America. Others say it took place in Central America, in Panama or Mexico. And still other say the events of the book took place in the Heartland of America. That’s why some Mormons are conducting expeditions in Southeast Iowa to uncover the ancient city of Zaramehla that purportedly had 100,000 people living in it in the fourth century, which would have made it one of the largest cities in ancient North America. But so far, the expeditions haven’t been promising. In fact, according to the National Geographic Society, “Archaeologists and other scholars have long probed the hemisphere’s past, and the society does not know of anything found so far that has substantiated the Book of Mormon.”
To put this into perspective, it would be very difficult to defend the Bible if some Christians said the city of Jerusalem was in Israel, others said it was in southern France, and still others said it was in India.
Because of this, some Mormon scholars lean towards the view the book is an allegory and not historical; but that threatens to turn Mormonism into something as irrelevant as Unitarianism that doesn’t need to be defended because it doesn’t really make claims about anything.
So, the next time a Mormon missionary asks you to read the Book of Mormon, ask them to point show you on a map where the events of the book took place. This helps redirect the conversation away from trying to prove something with “warm feelings” from reading a book and instead following the evidence wherever it leads.