Models and Methods in Book of Mormon Geography: The Peruvian Model as a Test-Case

Over the last couple of years, one of the many things I have dabbled in off-and-on has had to do with the methodologies employed by those who develop New World Book of Mormon geographies. There is obviously a lot of diversity of opinion on this topic, and certain proponents have blamed all this confusion on there being inadequate information in the text, or on the methodology followed by a select few, as if it were the dominant methodology. The reality is that the diversity of opinions is the result of a diversity of methods.

In general, there are three basic groups into which the various methods fall:

  1. Geographic priority: Those who hold that the geographic data in the text is the most important, though they will usually also value archaeological data, they will hold it as secondary to making sure the mountains, seas, valleys, and rivers fit the geography of the text. Some may also regard the words of Joseph Smith, perhaps along with other leaders, as relevant, but again, the geographic data takes priority.
  2. Archaeological priority: Those who believe archaeological and anthropological evidence compared to the cultural data in the text should be our guiding light, and that we should turn to geography only after we have found a civilization that matches that described in the Book of Mormon, after which we should let the physical lay of the land influence how we conceptualize Book of Mormon geography. Some of these may also regard the words of Joseph Smith or other leaders as key indicators, but not as more important than the archaeology.
  3. Prophetic priority: Those who believe that the words of Joseph Smith, other leaders, or the “prophecies and promises” in the Book of Mormon are our most important evidence and that archaeology, geography, and everything else takes a back seat to them.

All those who fall into one category or another do not necessarily follow the same method—they just place priority on the same kind of evidence. From there, their methods can be quite different, and hence they can reach vastly different conclusions.

George Potter’s Peruvian Model and Archaeological Priority

One of those I would classify as an archaeological priority based model is the Peruvian model advocated by George Potter. Potter writes:

One common argument for the Book of Mormon having taken place in Mesoamerica is that it uniquely matches the book’s geographic context. Actually, the Book of Mormon contains very little geographical information from which to draw a definitive conclusion as to where the event within it took place. As a result, many other equally logical geographic models for the Book of Mormon lands have been formulated. ((George Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land: More Evidences That the Book of Mormon Is a True History (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, 2009), 1, emphasis in original.))

Potter elaborates, arguing, “For scholars or anyone else to claim that they have found a region that uniquely matches the geographical clues in the Book of Mormon, they can only do so based on very strong assumptions; that is, they complete their maps by filling in their own ideas ‘between the lines’ in the sacred record.” ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 1–2.))

Potter’s own geographic configuration is quite full of strong assumptions, which not only read things into the text, but ignores the text almost completely; but more on that in a moment. Having insisted that the geographic information in the text is too limited to help us locate Book of Mormon lands, Potter then proceeds to argue that archaeological and anthropological evidence should be our guiding light. He writes:

Using odd concepts such as “internal logic” or “geographic templates,” Book of Mormon scholars have concocted self-defined theory after theory of where the Nephites once lived; however, they have done so while completely ignoring the obvious body of evidence that would actually identify where the Nephites once lived with their metals, ships, herds, flocks, grains, all manner of cloth, and, most important, the tradition of a visitation of a white god in the form of a man. ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 12.))

By that standard, he claims that South America proves a more fitting candidate. “Indeed,” he says, “a growing body of archaeological and anthropological evidence from South America overwhelmingly favors the book.” ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, xii.))

On the one hand, the archaeological record that is unfolding in Peru is clearly showing that the Book of Mormon is in harmony with science. On the other hand, after decades of research, no credible scientific evidence exists of a single Book of Mormon site in Mesoamerica. Conjecture, sure—evidence, no. ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 12–13, commas in the last sentence silently added.))

The Problem with the Archaeological Priority Approach

The inherent problem in using archaeological and anthropological evidence as the key evidence is that it is always incomplete and changing. John E. Clark—a seasoned and experienced archaeologist, mind you—has explained, “It has been my experience that most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when confronted with a Book of Mormon geography, worry about the wrong things.” He continues:

Almost invariably the first question that arises is whether the geography fits the archaeology of the proposed area. This should be our second question, the first being whether the geography fits the facts of the Book of Mormon—a question we all can answer without being versed in American archaeology. Only after a given geography reconciles all of the significant geographic details given in the Book of Mormon does the question of archaeological and historical detail merit attention. The Book of Mormon must be the final and most important arbiter in deciding the correctness of a given geography; otherwise we will be forever hostage to the shifting sands of expert opinion. ((John E. Clark, “A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 1 (1989): 21; reprinted as John E. Clark, “Revisiting ‘A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies’,” Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011): 13–14.))

Geography provides us a rather permanent set of landmarks from which to compare the Book of Mormon text: mountains, valleys, rivers, and seas should be arranged in a way that actually fits the text. Archaeology does not hold this same advantage. In fact, Potter himself admits, “Today’s archaeology might contradict an element of the Book of Mormon history; however, that does not mean that in another twenty years the reverse might not be the case.” ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, xviii.)) While this admission is candid, it does little to instill confidence in his criticisms over the archaeological and anthropological inadequacy of the Mesoamerican area. After all, couldn’t the situation reverse itself in another 20 years?

This isn’t to say that archaeological, anthropological, historical, and cultural evidence should be ignored—it is certainly important. But, as Clark has put it, it is our second question. As Clark said, “Only after a given geography reconciles all of the significant geographic details given in the Book of Mormon does the question of archaeological and historical detail merit attention.” John L. Sorenson has similarly explained, “Only when we have an idea of that [i.e., the geographic location] can we know which historical traditions or archaeological sequences can be compared most usefully with Mormon’s text.” ((John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, Utah: Research Press, 1998), 188.))

Regardless of which priority one prefers, it should go without saying that the geographic arrangement of any model must be subjected to scrutiny against the geographic data in the text; and that if it cannot stand up to such a test, then it does not matter what archaeological or anthropological evidence is used, because the evidence is clearly from the wrong place. This is something that anyone to check, as Clark points out. But what of Potter’s claim that the geographic information in the text is far too limited to really distinguish between the different models, which are all “equally logical” on geographic grounds? We can test this against Potter’s own model.

How Much Geographic Data is in the Text?

First, there is the issue of just how much geographic data Potter utilizes from the Book of Mormon text. I have not scoured the whole book, but his chapter dedicated to actually fleshing out Book of Mormon geography only makes reference to scripture passages 88 times. ((See Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 71–95.)) That number was derived by simply counting every scripture reference I could find. It doesn’t weed out (as it should) repeated references to the same verse(s), or references found within quotations from other sources. Also note that some references are so vague as to be worthless. ((On Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 77, there is a reference to Alma 27–54—a whole 27 chapters!)) I would guess that the actual number of passages utilized by Potter to flesh out his geography (at least, in this one chapter dedicated to such an exercise) is below 70, perhaps even under 60. Compare that to the 600+ that John L. Sorenson draws on to develop his geography, or the 300+ that John E. Clark has used to develop one. ((See John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 17, 119; Clark, “A Key,” 21–70; reprinted as “Revisiting ‘A Key’,” 13–43.)) Randall P. Spackman has not developed his own geography, but in comparing the passages Sorenson uses against those used by Clark, he determined that there are at least 1,068 passages relevant to Book of Mormon geography. ((See Randall P. Spackman, “Interpreting Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review 15/1 (2003): 26-29. He counts 1,068 relevant verses using John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Map (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), and John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), plus Clark’s “A Key,” and eliminating duplicates.)) So when fleshing out Nephite geography, Potter utilizes less than 10% of the available geographic data in the Book of Mormon. So, this evokes the question: is it really that there is not enough data, or is it that Potter just isn’t looking at all the information?

At the end of this chapter, Potter writes: “The few geographic clues we have of the Book of Mormon lands, all clearly fit comfortably into a geopolitical setting that archaeologists have established for a New World region.” ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 95.)) It would be more correct to say that the few geographic clues the he has used in that chapter all clearly fit into a geopolitical setting that he has interpreted them to fit into. If we take a closer look at his geography, it quickly fails under the scrutiny of more Book of Mormon data.

Up and Down as Directions

A claim that is crucial to Potter’s geographic arrangement is that “up” and “down” refer to “north” and “south” respectively. “The word for down in Semitic languages refers to ‘south.’ Quechua follows the same convention, with up meaning ‘north’ and down meaning ‘south.’” ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 85, italics in original.)) While a book on the Inca is cited in relation to the claim for Quechua language, there is no citation supporting the claim in regard to Semitic languages.

This suggestion is at odds with the way Latter-day Saint scholars have long been interpreting the use of up and down in terms of travel—as topographic references to going into either higher or lower elevation. Such an interpretation has been maintained by persons with familiarity in Semitic languages, such as Hugh Nibley, D. Kelly Ogden, and Jeffrey R. Chadwick. ((See Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 7; D. Kelly Ogden, “Answering the Lord’s Call (1 Nephi 1-7),” in The Book of Mormon: Part 1—1 Nephi–Alma 29, Kent P. Jackson, ed. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1987), 27; Jeffery R. Chadwick, “Lehi’s House at Jerusalem and the Land of his Inheritance,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely, eds. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2004), 84.)) Regardless of whether such an interpretation is correct, Potters interpretation almost certainly is not. This can be unambiguously settled based on Alma 22:30–31. Here the “people of Zarahemla” are said to have discovered the land of Desolation, “it being the place of their first landing” (v. 30). Next, it says “they came up from there into the south wilderness” (v. 31, emphasis mine). Desolation is generally the northernmost land in Book of Mormon geography models, and Potter’s model appears to be no exception. ((See the map on Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 93.)) The problem, then, for Potter is that no matter what you set as your reference point for the “south” wilderness—whether it be Nephi, Zarahemla, Bountiful, or Desolation itself—the people of Zarahemla are traveling from Desolation, thus going south as they go “up.” Such a statement completely undoes Potter’s interpretation of up as “north” and down as “south.”

Land of Nephi in Relation to the Land of Zarahemla

Potter places the land of Nephi north of Zarahemla. “Pukara is south of Cuzco, which is how Zarahemla was situated in reference to the city of Nephi.” ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 85; also see p. 94 and maps on p. 13, 83, 93.)) Despite this arrangement, Potter does divide the Nephites and Lamanites along north/south lines. He writes:

The Lamanite king we know as the father of Lamoni lived at the same time as the Pukara Empire. The Book of Mormon states the Lamanites during his reign inhabited the lands southward and describes how Zarahemla was separated from the lands he controlled:

The king sent a proclamation throughout all the land, amongst all his people who were in all his land, who were in all the regions round about, which was bordering even to the sea, on the east and on the west, and which was divided from the land of Zarahemla by a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west, and round about on the borders [mountains] of the seashore, and the borders of the wilderness which was on the north by the land of Zarahemla, through the borders [mountains] of Manti, by the head of the {river} Sidon, running {from} the east towards the west—and thus were the Lamanites and the Nephites divided. (Alma 22:27; emphasis added) ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 85. Italics and square brackets in Alma 22:27 are Potter’s. The {fancy} brackets are mine and represent words omitted by Potter without ellipses (probably just typo’s).))

So Potter understands that this passage indicates that Zarahemla is north of the land ruled by Lamoni’s father, the Lamanite king, with a narrow strip of wilderness in between them. ((Lest there be any doubt about this, see the maps on Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 68, 84, and 93, as well as his acknowledgment on p. 94 that Clark is correct in stating “The land southward was divided by a ‘narrow strip of wilderness’ that ran from the ‘sea east’ to the ‘sea west’ (Alma 22:32) [correct]. Nephites occupied the land on the north of this wilderness, and the Lamanites, that to the south [correct;…].” Clark, as quoted by Potter, with Potter’s bracketed comments; ellipses mine.)) But Potter does not mention that this land is unambiguously identified as the land of Nephi in the first verse of the chapter: “Aaron… wasled by the Spirit to the land of Nephi, even to the house of the king which was over all the land… and he was the father of Lamoni” (Alma 22:1; cf. Alma 17:7–9; 20:1–2, which make it clear that Ammon, Aaron, and their brothers and companions are in the Land of Nephi). ((Note that in the map on Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 172, it shows the city of Nephi as the capital of Lamanite lands, although Nephite lands divide it from all of the other Lamanite lands. This curiosity is never brought up in chapter 4, which is supposed to be discussing just such geopolitical details. Nor did I notice it addressed or explained elsewhere.)) Alma 22:33–34 also explain that the Nephites had “hemmed in the Lamanites on the south, that thereby they should have no more possession on the north” (v. 33), and hence the Lamanites had “possessions only in the land of Nephi” (v. 34), which must necessarily be to the south.

Alma 50:7–11 clarifies the divide described in Alma 22 and adds to Potter’s problems. Here, Moroni drives the Lamanites out the east wilderness “into their own lands, which were south of the land of Zarahemla” (v. 7). It then tells us that the Land of Nephi boarders the east sea (v. 8), while Alma 22:28 indicates that the Land of Nephi also boarders the seashore on the west—but Potter’s Land of Nephi boarders neither his east sea nor his west sea. ((See maps on Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 83 and 172.)) Continuing in Alma 50, Moroni then has Nephites colonize the east wilderness where he had just driven out the Lamanites (v. 9), and places armies on the south to protect against the Lamanites that were just driven out (v. 10).  Verse 11 then explains, “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,” making it clear that the line dividing the Nephites (on the north) and Lamanites (on the south) is between the lands of Zarahelma and Nephi. Only the most convoluted of interpretations of these verses could situate the Land of Nephi north of Zarahemla.

Potter tries to argue that the text has the land of Nephi as being north of Zarahemla as follows: “Zarahemla being located south of the City of Nephi is confirmed in the Book of Helaman when Nephi, son of Helaman, goes to the land of Nephi to preach the gospel to the Lamanites (Helaman 5:20), and later returns to Zarahelma ‘from the land northward’ (Helaman 7:1).” ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 85.)) In using Helaman 5:20 and 7:1, however, Potter obscures the fact that in Helaman 6, we learn that after Nephi and Lehi had a very successful mission in the land of Nephi, thanks to some impressive miracles, the converted Lamanites first “did come down into the land of Zarahemla,” (Helaman 6:4) and then they, “did go into the land northward; and also Nephi and Lehi went into the land northward, to preach unto the people” (Helaman 6:6). So Helaman 7:1 is not about Nephi and Lehi returning from the Land of Nephi—they had followed their converts north out of the land of Nephi, first stopping in Zarahemla, and then going even further, up into the land northward.

Potter’s arrangement between the lands of Nephi and Zarahemla also leads to some logical conundrums. Potter repeatedly states that when the Nephites occupied the land of Nephi, the Lamanites were on their south. For example, “While building the city, Nephi reports of having to forge swords to prevent his people from being destroyed by the Lamanites (2 Nephi 5:14). The Lamanites lived within eyesight of the city of Nephi (Mosiah 20:8) and seem to have lived south of the city,” Potter reasons. ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 131. Nevermind Potter’s use of Mosiah 20:8—a completely different time and situation—to argue about the location of Lamanites in Nephi’s day.)) In Mosiah1’s day, Potter reiterates, “there were Lamanites to the immediate south of the city of Nephi,” ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 153.)) which is part of Potter’s reasoning as to why the Nephites did not discover Zarahemla before Mosiah1. Yet when it is time to leave Nephi, Potter necessarily has them going south—right into enemy territory. “As Mosiah’s migration continued south, they eventually discovered a large community of people called the Mulekites, in a land called Zarahemla.” ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 153. While we cannot be certain that the reason for fleeing is Lamanite invasion or natural disaster, in either scenario the Lamanites are to their south and would thus force flight north.))

A Land of Nephi that is north of the Land of Zarahemla is completely untenable in light of the Book of Mormon passages that describe the relationship between those cities.

The Land of the First Inheritance and Nomadic Lamanites on the Western Shore

In one of the maps in Potter’s book, the land of first inheritance is situated at the southern tip of Lake Titicaca. ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 83.)) This same map shows the land of Nephi (Cuzco) north of both Bountiful and Zarahemla, hundreds of miles northwest of the lake (which is Potter’s “east sea”). On other maps, Potter places the lands bordering the western sea, where a “semi-nomad part of Lamanites” lived on the Pacific Coast, as the southernmost portion of the southern Lamanite lands, once again with the city of Nephi far to the north with Nephites in between. ((See Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 172; also 84.))

This arrangement of the land of first inheritance, the nomadic Lamanite lands, and the Land of Nephi is impossible to square with Alma 22:28, which says, “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… on the west in the land of Nephi, in the place of their fathers’ first inheritance, and thus bordering along by the seashore” (emphasis added). This equates the land of first inheritance with wilderness on the western sea shore where Lamanites live a nomadic lifestyle, and explicitly states that this land is in the Land of Nephi. Potter’s arrangement simply cannot be squared with this statement.

The River Sidon

Potter’s interpretations relative to the River Sidon are interesting, to say the least. He claims that “the headwaters of the river Sidon were to the north of Zarahemla (Alma 22:29), the river flowed southward” and denies that the headwaters are in the narrow strip of wilderness. ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 94.)) Potter elaborates further:

The land of Zarahemla had a river that flowed north to south through it and which appears to have defined the land’s western border. The river’s name was Sidon, and it flowed beside Zarahemla. The Pukara River winds its way through the entire length of the northern Lake Titicaca basin…. The river’s headwaters, course, and drainage into the giant lake suit well the features attributed to the river Sidon, which extended to the “northern parts of the land bordering the wilderness, at the head of the river Sidon” (Alma 22:29). ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 156-157.))

As explained above, however, Alma 22 is in reference to the land of Nephi, not Zarahemla. It does not say that the head of Sidon is north of Zarahemla, but rather that the Nephites possess “all the northern parts of the land,” starting from “the wilderness, at the head of the river Sidon,” going “round about on the wilderness side” and continuing “on the north, even until… Bountiful” (v. 29). Therefore, the headwaters of Sidon need to be north of Nephi, which they are not in Potter’s model. Alma 16:3–7 places the headwaters of Sidon in the southern, not the northern, wilderness from a Zarahemla perspective.

Facts on the ground, however, don’t actually match Potter’s description. Although Potter says that the headwaters are north of Zarahemla, the Pukara River arcs in just such a way as to result in the headwaters being south of his Zarahemla, and yet the river flows north-south where his Zarahemla actually is. ((See maps on Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 224.)) Still, headwaters are south of Nephi when they need to be north.

As I mentioned, Potter disputes the typical placement of the Sidon headwaters being in the narrow strip of wilderness. While the language maybe somewhat vague, the most logical reading of Alma 22:27 suggests that it is:

And it came to pass that the king sent a proclamation throughout all the land, amongst all his people who were in all his land, who were in all the regions round about, which was bordering even to the sea, on the east and on the west, and which was divided from the land of Zarahemla by a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west, and round about on the borders of the seashore, and the borders of the wilderness which was on the north by the land of Zarahemla, through the borders of Manti, by the head of the river Sidon, running from the east towards the west —and thus were the Lamanites and the Nephites divided. (Alma 22:27, italics mine)

I have arranged the breaks in this verse so that subordinate clauses are further indented. It seems to me that everything after “a narrow strip of wilderness” is descriptive of that narrow strip. It (a) runs east to west, from sea to sea; (b) runs along the borders by the seashore; (c) runs by the wilderness north (of Nephi), which is by Zarahemla; (d) goes through the borders by Manti; (d) which is by the headwaters of Sidon. I find it hard to interpret this passage in a way that moves the headwaters of Sidon far from the narrow strip of wilderness, as Potter’s geography does.

It seems even harder to imagine a scenario where the headwaters are not part of the dividing space between Nephite and Lamanite lands, as the verse concludes “thus were the Lamanites and the Nephites divided.” But the headwaters of Potter’s Sidon neither divide his southern Lamanite lands from Zarahemla, nor his misplaced, northern land of Nephi. Even if Potter wishes to dispute the majority interpretation of Alma 22:27, Alma 50:11 makes it clear that the headwaters of Sidon are “between Zarahemla and the land of Nephi,” and this is not the case in Potter’s model.

The Land Bountiful

Potter’s placement of Bountiful is also contrary to traditional arrangements and bears some investigation. Potter reasons:

The Land Bountiful is south of the Land of Desolation and ran from the “east” (eastern quarter of Zarahemla or southwestern Inca quarter of Collasuyu) to the “west sea” (Pacific Ocean) (Alma 22:33). Thus, the final piece of the puzzle, the land Bountiful, fits perfectly into its place as the Inca’s quarter of Contisuyu. ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 87.))

Potter explains that in the first century BC, “the Nephites of Zarahemla… colonize the land Bountiful to their west (Alma 22:33).” ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 172.)) Potter insists, “Bountiful was located near the narrow neck of land by the west sea; there is no mention of an east sea.” ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 95.)) Potter’s many maps actually show his Bountiful as being southwest of Zarahemla. ((See Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 83, 84, 93, 172, 173.)) Indeed, Bountiful is identified as the southwest quarter of the land. ((See Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 87, 93.))

Potter’s situating of Bountiful is problematic for a number of reasons. An obvious problem is that when Capitan Moroni is coming from “the south and the west borders of the land” to go to Bountiful, it takes him the better part of a year to get there (see Alma 52:15, 18), something that doesn’t make any sense if Bountiful is the southwest corner of the land. But that is only the beginning of the problems for Potter’s model as it relates to Bountiful.

Returning to Alma 22, we are told that the Nephites possessed “all the northern parts,” continuing “on the north, even until they came to the land which they called Bountiful” (v. 29, emphasis mine). Bountiful went “so far northward that it came into the land which had been peopled and been destroyed” (v. 30, emphasis mine). Clearly, Bountiful was the northernmost part of the Nephites territory. This is made even more clear in Helaman 4:5–8, where a Lamanite offensive drives the Nephites out of Zarahemla and into the Bountiful, where they fortify themselves. The Nephites only retaining Bountiful, it is said that the Lamanites “had obtained all the possession of the Nephites which was in the land southward” (v. 8), hence Bountiful was further north than the rest of Nephite territories. In another instance, when the Lamanites conquered Zarahemla, they then marched toward Bountiful in order to “obtain the north parts of the land” (Helaman 1:23). There can be little doubt that Bountiful was north of Zarahemla.

The next problem has to do with what does lie north of Bountiful in Potter’s model. Alma 22:33 and 50:11 make it clear that the Nephites possessed “all the land which was northward of the land Bountiful, according to their pleasure” (50:11). Potter’s knows this and quotes Alma 50:11 to that effect. ((See Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 172.)) Ironically, however, the map just to the right on the very same page—which is supposed to represent Nephite and Lamanite lands ca. 90 BC, the same time as Alma 22, and only a couple of decades before Alma 50—shows the “Lamanites Capital” (Nephi) to be due north of Bountiful, albeit with Nephites in between. ((See the map on Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 172, cf. map on p. 83.)) This, however, has more to do with Potter’s poor placement of Nephi (as discussed above) than Bountiful.

Finally, Potter’s Bountiful is completely separated from the east sea. Potter cites Alma 63:5 to show that Bountiful should be near the west sea, and he is certainly correct. However, several passages indicate that the Land of Bountiful must have stretched across to the east sea as well. Jershon, “which is on the east by the sea… joins the land Bountiful” and in fact is “on the south of the land Bountiful” (Alma 27:22). In the later war chapters, we read of a series of cities “which were on the east borders by the seashore” (Alma 51:26), all of which were taken by the Lamanites. The next land they set their sights on is Bountiful, and they begin to march in that direction, and even made it to the “borders of the land Bountiful” (v. 28) before they are headed off by Teancum. Teancum and his men hold off the Lamanite army, and each set up camp, Teancum by “the borders of the land Bountiful,” Amalickiah, “on the beach by the seashore” (v. 32). The next day, the Lamanites flee back to Mulek, one of the cities along the eastern shore (Alma 52:2; cf. 51:26) because they awake to find their commander killed. Unless Potter wish’s to maintain that Amalickiah and his army crisscrossed from the eastern seaboard cities (by Lake Titicaca in his model) to the western sea border (the Pacific Ocean in his model) to try and take Bountiful, and then had no strongholds in between (thus having to flee all the way back to Mulek, by the east sea), it seems inescapable that the Land of Bountiful extends toward the eastern sea.

In a strategy to retake the land of Mulek (which, again, is near the east sea), Teancum marches his men along the seashore until the guards in Mulek notice, and the Lamanites come out to challenge them, at which point Teancum flees northward along the seashore until coming to the city of Bountiful (see Alma 52:22–24, 27). That Alma 51:32; 52:22–24 cannot refer to the western seashore is further clarified by the fact that Moroni cannot come to Teancum’s aid during this time because he (Moroni) is engaged in another conflict with the Lamanites “in the borders of the land by the west sea” (Alma 52:11) and Ammoron leaves the area he is fighting in against Teancum and launches an assault “on the borders by the west sea” instead (Alma 52:12).

In fact, it would seem that city of Bountiful was in this part of the land by the eastern seaboard, since Teancum awaits Moroni’s coming in the city, after which they strategize on how to retake the eastern cities (and the city of Bountiful plays a role in those strategies, see Alma 52:17, 27). So not only does the Land of Bountiful need to be close to the east sea, but its principle city, and hence the majority of its population, ought to be closer to the east sea than the west (cf. Helaman 5:14–16, which situates the city of Bountiful near Gid and Mulek, both cities mentioned in Alma 51:26 as being by the eastern sea). These battle scenarios cannot be played out in Potter’s Book of Mormon geography, and in his appendix on battle scenarios he doesn’t even try, ((See Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 223–224.)) nor does he anywhere attempt to identify any of these cities, so far as I could tell.


George Potter has made valuable contributions to understanding the Book of Mormon in its Old World setting, for which students of the Book of Mormon should be grateful. ((See George D. Potter, “A New Candidate for the Valley of Lemuel,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999): 54–63; George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness: 81 New, Documented Evidences That the Book of Mormon is a True History (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, 2003); George Potter and Richard Willington, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/2 (2006): 26–43.)) I appreciate his past contributions as well as his enthusiasm and desire in the present work, and the dedication he has shown to supporting the truth of the Book of Mormon and expanding our understanding of its contents. In critiquing this present work, it must be admitted that Potter got one thing right: any attempt at piecing together Book of Mormon geography involves interpretation. This includes Potter’s own work as well as this critique. Just because interpretation is required, however, does not mean that all interpretations carry the same weight or prove to be equally valid. The best interpretations will involve the most data combined with the least assumptions. In examining Potter’s model, I have sought to focus on areas where less interpretation is required so as to provide a fair and accurate test of Potter’s interpretation of Book of Mormon geography.

So, the lesson here is that there is a lot more geographic information in the Book of Mormon than Potter seems to think there is. What’s more, it is enough to at least rule out his own geographic model. Whichever kind of priority method one thinks is best, it is certain that any model that cannot be squared with the geographic data in the text cannot be accepted as representing Book of Mormon lands. Kevin Christensen provides an interesting hypothetical scenario as an exercise in paradigm choice:

Suppose that in the ongoing Book of Mormon historicity debate we could swap currently plausible solutions for current problems. That is, suppose we had better evidence for metals and horses, a scrap of recognizably reformed Egyptian script, and even some profoundly unlikely DNA that somehow pointed directly to 600 BC Jerusalem. At the same time, suppose we did not have a unique fit for the river Sidon, nor an archaeologically suitable Cumorah, nor the rise and fall of major cultures at the right time (Olmec and Preclassic), nor a Zarahemla candidate that explained various circumstances in the text (physical, geographic, and linguistic), nor evidence of a major volcanic eruption at the right time, nor fortifications of the right kind, nor a candidate for the Waters of Mormon complete with a submerged city, nor a good candidate for the Gadianton movement, nor the other abundant cultural details that Sorenson, Gardner, Clark, and others have detailed…. Given that exchange of current solutions for current puzzles, would the present case for New World Book of Mormon historicity be stronger or weaker? ((Christensen, “Hindsight on a Book of Mormon Historicity Critique,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 167.))

Christensen proposes that we swap a fitting geographical setting for better evidence for metals, Old World writing, the right kinds of animals, DNA, etc. and asks whether we subsequently have better or worse evidence for the Book of Mormon. In his effort to persuade us to choose his South American paradigm over that of Mesoamerica, George Potter is ultimately inviting us to make this very exchange. His Peruvian model is a poor fit for the Book of Mormon geographically, as demonstrated above, yet with glib dismissals of approaches that focus on the geographic data first, Potter uses metals, ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 2–4, 31–32.)) linguistics, ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 4–5.)) animal domestication, ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 24–25.)) and even makes faint appeals to DNA, ((Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, 1, 46.)) among other types of archaeological, historical, scientific, and technological evidences to try and justify his efforts to force the Book of Mormon geography into Peru.

Regardless of how compelling it maybe in terms of archaeology, anthropology, history, and science, ((I have not examined Potter’s claims in this regard because I lack any qualifications to do so, and because, as I state in the body of the text, I feel it is irrelevant if model has already failed to measure up to the geography in the text. Nonetheless, I am given to understand that there are problems with Potter’s handling of archaeological and ethno-historical data as well. One thing I can point out is that Potter draws heavily on the work of David Calderwood, whose treatment of the old Spanish chronicles has been subject to serious criticism. See Brant A. Gardner, “A New Chronicler in the Old Style,” FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 13–22.)) it should be clear that this puts us in a more vulnerable position in terms of Book of Mormon historicity. Brant A. Gardner writes, “We must use the text as a guide. Any theory that violates what the text tells us also disagrees with those who really did know where the Book of Mormon took place—those who wrote the text.” ((Brant A. Gardner, “This Idea: The ‘This Land’ Series and the U.S.-Centric Reading of the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review 20/2 (2008): 162.)) Plenty of places can be shown to have some or all of the right cultural elements—not the least of which is the ancient Near East, which will even have the “right” DNA!—but if those places cannot be squared with the Book of Mormon geographically, it does not matter: it’s the wrong place.

In the face of archaeological priority advocates like Potter, and even prophetic priority advocates, ((Potter himself also makes some appeals to “prophetic” evidence. See Potter, Nephi in the Promised Land, x, 97, 108–109, 162–163. Also see George Potter, Frank Linehan, and Conrad Dickson, Voyages in the Book of Mormon (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, 2011), 105–109. The approach here is purely prophetic priority as Potter et al. exclusively use “prophetic” sources to establish South America as the ending point of Nephi’s voyage.)) who insist that the geographic data in the text is insufficient to pin down the lands of the Book of Mormon, I find it telling that, so far in my search, all major advocates of geographic priority methods—which includes Clark, ((In addition to the works already cited by Clark, see John E. Clark, “Geography,” in To All the World: The Book of Mormon Articles from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Daniel H. Ludlow, S. Kent Brown, and John W. Welch, eds. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 97–101.)) Sorenson, ((In addition to the works already cited by Sorenson, see John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985).)) F. Richard Hauck, ((See F. Richard Hauck, Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1988).)) V. Garth Norman, ((See V. Garth Norman, Book of Mormon—Mesoamerican Geography: History Study Map (American Fork, Utah: ARCON Inc. and the Ancient America Foundation, 2008).)) Lawrence L. Poulson, ((See Lawrence Poulson, Lawrence Poulson’s Book of Mormon Geography, online at (accessed January 23, 2014).)) and Kirk Magleby ((Capitan Kirk (Kirk Magleby), “Book of Mormon Model,” at Book of Mormon Resources, July 28, 2012 (updated October 2, 2013), online at (accessed January 23, 2014).)) —while differing in many details, are unanimous that only Mesoamerica fits the geographic details of the text. Such agreement cannot be found in either the archaeological priority camp—which includes Potter, a South American advocate, and Mesoamerican advocates Joseph L. and Blake J. Allen, ((See Joseph Lovell Allen and Blake Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, rev. ed. (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2011).)) along with their editor, Ted Dee Stoddard ((See Ted Dee Stoddard, “A Note from the Editor,” in Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands; Ted Dee Stoddard, “Critical Criteria for Identifying the New World Lands of the Book of Mormon: Implications for the Heartland Model and the Mesoamerica Model,” Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, online at (accessed January 17, 2014).)) —or the prophetic priority camp—which includes John L. Lund, ((See John L. Lund, Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon: Is This the Place? (The Communications Company, 2007); John L. Lund, Joseph Smith and the Geography of the Book of Mormon (The Communications Company, 2012).)) a Mesoamerican advocate, and Rod Meldrum, ((See Bruce Porter and Rod Meldrum, Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America (Mendon, New York: Digital Legends, 2009).)) promoter of the “heartland” model of North America. Perhaps the geographic details are more compelling than some think.

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