Is the location of the Nephite Hill Cumorah revealed ? Was it in New York or somewhere else?
Early Church leaders thought Cumorah was in New York, but they also believed things such as Lehi landing in Chili (1) or Maya ruins being Nephite ruins (2). So we can’t pick up one end of the stick (Cumorah in New York) without picking up the other end of the stick (statements made for other locations such as Chile or Mesoamerica).
Joseph Smith also made statements for both North and Central America. The Church’s official geography statement published just a couple months ago says:
“The Prophet Joseph Smith himself accepted what he felt was evidence of Book of Mormon civilizations in both North America and Central America.”
The early Church, including Joseph Smith, had a “hemispheric view” of the Book of Mormon. Meaning to them, the Book of Mormon happened all over the Americas (North, Central, and South America). Many members still think Hemispherically too. It wasn’t until about the 1900’s when we realized that the Book of Mormon geography was a much smaller location (this is called a “limited model”).
Joseph Smith never stated that the New York hill was the “Nephite” Cumorah. He mentioned “Cumorah” once at the end of his life, but only in relation to where the plates were found, not as a Nephite location. He likely used that term due to the tradition already made of calling it Cumorah. Other times he simply called it a hill in New York.
“Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County New York, being dead; and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them.” (3)
In fact, the Church doesn’t consider any geographical statement made by Joseph Smith as revelation concerning where any Book of Mormon location was. Apostle Elder Widstoe explained that,
“As far as can be learned, Joseph Smith, translator of the book, did not say where, on the American continent, Book of Mormon activities occurred.” (4)
He also explained that:
“The hill from which the Book of Mormon plates were obtained is definitely known. In the days of the Prophet this hill was known among the people as Cumorah. This is a fixed point in Book of Mormon later history. There is a controversy, however, about the Hill Cumorah–––not about the location where the Book of Mormon plates were found, but whether it is the hill under that name near which Nephite events took place.” (4)
No geography statement made by church leaders has been accepted as binding revelation or doctrine, other than it happening in the Americas generally. This is why the Church said that,
“The Church does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas.”
This would include Cumorah. Harold B. Lee said that,
“Well, if the Lord wanted us to know where [Cumorah] was, or where Zarahemla was, he’d have given us latitude and longitude, don’t you think?” (5)
If the Lord would have revealed where Cumorah was, then the Church would have a position. Instead, the location of Cumorah, and the New York hill, is based on opinion.
What if the New York Hill is the “Hill Cumorah”
If one was to accept early Church leader opinions about the New York hill as the “Hill Cumorah” as binding doctrine, then they would have to do one of at least three things:
- Accept the other Church leader geographical statements as doctrine such as Lehi landing in Chili (Oliver Cowdery)(1), Peru having Nephite blood (Parley P. Pratt), Central America being the place where the Nephites flourished (Brigham Young), the Maya ruins being Nephite ruins (Joseph Smith). And therefor one should have a Hemispheric model of the Book of Mormon, which the early Church had. But like I said earlier, in the 1900’s we realized the entire Americas was far too large to be the Book of Mormon landers. However, many members still think hemispherically.
- Accept the fact that early Church leaders were mistaken in their geography opinions (this doesn’t mean the gospel is mistaken FYI). Early leaders were too busy being persecuted and killed for them to look deeply into the matter. Archaeology wasn’t even a solid field back then. People believed in hoaxy stuff back then (sadly many people today still believe in hoaxy archaeology). This option seems to be the opinion of most LDS scholars. I dare say it’s event the opinion of the Church. And so we look to what science and the text itself suggests about Cumorah. And this is where Mesoamerica fits in nicely (more on this below).
- Accept only a few statements made by church leaders, and deny all the other statements (or make crazy excuses for the other statements). Unfortunately, this leads to conspiracy theories about the other statements, with people trying to justify them out of existence. It leads to cherry picking statements by prophets, instead of taking all statements into account. It can even lead to denying modern prophets and the modern Church, in favor of past/dead prophets that can’t clarify themselves.
Number 3 is what heartlander leaders do for the most part. They accuse others of “denying the prophets” for not accepting past cherry-picked statements about geography. At least, this is what their leader, Jonathan Neville, does almost daily on his blog. When one of the top three leaders of the heartland movement does this, you know there’s an issue. When the main leader of the movement (Rod Meldrum) uses the same approach, terms, and logic as Neville does, then you know it’s a problem. They got upset at the Church for not including the term “Cumorah” in the new Saints book, causing the Church to respond. The Church History department explained that there’s simply no historical documentation about the New York hill being the “Nephite” Cumorah. Read this article for more info on that.
I believe that the reason the Church included the following quote into their geography statement is in part due to Heartlander claims about having “prophetic evidence.”
“The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles urge leaders and members not to advocate those personal theories in any setting or manner that would imply either prophetic or Church support for those theories.”
How Could Cumorah be in Mesoamerica?
For me, number 2 is the most reasonable. It’s okay for Church leaders to have been mistaken about things that aren’t really necessary to our salvation. It’s honorable that they tried making correlations. It’s cool that they slowly got closer and closer to Mesoamerica. Joseph Smith published how the Maya ruins matched the Nephites later in his life. Later on, others deduced even closer to Mesoamerica. Apostle John E. Page in 1848 said that:
“All who are familiar with the Book of Mormon are probably aware of the fact that the whole account of the history of the fore fathers of the American Indians, called the Nephites, Lamanites and Zoramites, is confined to Central America entirely until the 394th page [Alma 63].” (6)
Members and leaders of the Church seem to have slowly grown closer and closer to a Mesoamerica setting, eventually leading to models just within Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica fits because of things like populations, writing systems, warfare, city-state governments, kings, raised highways, and so much more. This is not saying that the Nephites were the Maya. Rather, it seems that the Nephites were a small group affected by Mesoamerican culture.
And what about Moroni traveling to New York? Is that even possible? Well, Google Maps says that it’ll take about 100 days to walk from Mexico to New York. And Moroni had 36 YEARS to travel that distance! He could have been anywhere in the Americas, even with 60 pound plates. He had plenty of time. We have accounts from early explorers who traveled that distance in 11 months.
The Book of Mormon says that Mormon left all the records in Cumorah EXCEPT the golden plates (Mormon 6:6). The text suggests that Cumorah was elsewhere (close to an ocean, north of a narrow neck, etc). Mesoamerica fits the Book of Mormon. Many scholars think Cumorah could be somewhere in the Mexico Veracruz area.
Geography is a matter of opinion. Beware of people who think it’s doctrine. I lean to Mesoamerica, but I’m open to being wrong. I think science supports Mesoamerica the best. I think this is why places like BYU lean to Mesoamerica. I think this is why prophets such as Howard W. Hunter allowed Church funds to support research there. Howard Hunter would later say:
“In the heart of the Mayan area of Mesoamerica, which has such great significance in the Book of Mormon history.”
In any case, is the New York hill the real Cumorah? I don’t think there’s any reason to think it HAS to be. This blog is mostly about whether the New York hill is revealed to be the Hill Cumorah mentioned in the Book of Mormon. As explained, the Church doesn’t think so. And I don’t think the text supports it.
Here’s a video I helped make about Cumorah. It explains some of the history behind the New York hill, such as the first account of that name coming from William W. Phelps. It also explains the “cave” in the hill (there’s no first hand sources of this account and many of the second/third hand accounts suggest it was a vision).
The evidence suggests (the evidence that the Church History Department pointed out in the response referred to above) that the New York hill was called “Cumorah” by tradition and assumption…not revelation.
- Oliver Cowdery made that statement while on his “Lamanite Mission”
- Joseph Smith allowed this to be published in the Church’s Newspaper Times and Seasons
- Elders’ Journal 1, no. 3 [July 1838]: 42–43.
- John A. Widtsoe, “Is Book of Mormon Geography Known?” Improvement Era, July 1950, 547.
- Harold B. Lee, “Loyalty,” in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd ed.
- John E. Page, “Collateral Testimony of the Truth and Divinity of the Book of Mormon.—No. 3,” Gospel Herald, 14 September 1848, 123.