New Experience

Saints and Book of Mormon Geography

Jed Woodworth and Matt Grow
12 October 2018

Since the publication of Saints, Volume 1: The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846, some concern has been expressed online and to us personally that the text of the book has expressed a preference against a “heartland” model of Book of Mormon geography. We have been disappointed to read online commentary from individuals favoring a “heartland” model of Book of Mormon geography that asserts Saints works in subtle (and even conspiratorial) ways to suppress their views. This is not true.

Much of the concern has resulted because the word “Cumorah” does not appear in Saints. This omission has led some to believe that we left out that word in order to speak against a “heartland” model. We assure you that this is simply not the case. We have worked on Saints for many years, Matt as a general editor of Saints and Jed as a review editor of Volume 1. In those capacities, we have read all the draft chapters and editorial comments accompanying these drafts. No one under our observation—writers, editors, external reviewers, General Authority reviewers—has expressed any concern about the word “Cumorah” or articulated any need to expunge it from the record. To our knowledge, there have been no discussions about the need to put down one theory of Book of Mormon geography in order to promote another.

The purpose of Saints is to present a compelling narrative of the faith and sacrifice of early Latter-day Saints, not to weigh in (subtly or otherwise) on the various theories of Book of Mormon geography. We have sought to uphold the Church’s position of neutrality on these theories: “Though there are several plausible hypotheses regarding the geographic locations of Book of Mormon events, the Church takes no official position except that the events occurred in the Americas.”1

The preface to Saints explains that the book is a narrative history. Narrative histories are governed by rules, and one of the rules implemented by our writing team is that characters are to live in the “narrative present” and not be burdened by the understanding of later time periods. Our rule states: “The whole story as we understand it will be told, but readers will be following that story scene-by-scene, or even volume-by-volume, as the narrative progresses. If readers desire a broader view of the story or want additional information, extensive footnotes are included, and other in-depth material is available online, including links to essays, videos, and other sources.”

Thus, as Saints tells it, Joseph Smith walks into the “woods,” not the Sacred Grove, in 1820. There he has a “vision” of God and Christ, not the First Vision.2 In the same way, Joseph walks to a “hill” not far from his father’s home, not to the Hill Cumorah.3 The reason for omitting “Cumorah” is not that the writers wanted to expunge it in order to promote a geographical theory. The reason is that there is no historical evidence that Moroni called the hill “Cumorah” in 1823.

Of course, early Latter-day Saints, including Joseph Smith, later called the hill Cumorah, but the best research on the subject puts the term into common circulation no earlier than the mid-1830s.4 The main historical source concerning events at the hill between 1823 and 1827 comes from the history Joseph Smith began in 1838. There Joseph uses the term “hill,” never “Hill Cumorah.”5 Saints follows Joseph’s lead.

As our rule states, additional material connected with Saints contains “a broader view of the story.” In the Church History Topics, where the rules of narrative history do not apply, the term “Cumorah” can be found (see topics entitled “Angel Moroni” and “Sacred Grove and Smith Family Farm” at saints.lds.org or on the Gospel Library App).

[1] “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies,” note 6, Gospel Topics, topics.lds.org.

[2] See Saints, volume 1, chapter 2.

[3] See Saints, volume 1, chapters 3 and 4.

[4] See Cameron J. Packer, “A Study of the Hill Cumorah: A Significant Latter-day Saint Landmark in Western New York,” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 2002), chapter 3.

[5] This history initially refers to it only as “the place,” but Joseph’s scribe James Mulholland appended a slip of paper to the volume describing “a hill of considerable size, and the most elevated of any in the neighborhood.” The back of the slip of paper explains that he made the addition in consultation with Joseph. See Joseph Smith History, 1838–56, volume A-1, 7 and attached slip, in Karen Lynn Davidson and others, eds., Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, volume 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee and others (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 232–33 (draft 2).