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Interpreting Interpreter
That They Might Come Again

This post is a summary of the article “Unavailable Genetic Evidence, Multiple Simultaneous Promised Lands, and Lamanites by Location? Possible Ramifications of the Book of Mormon Limited Geography Theory” by Brian C. Hales in Volume 56 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Hales uses information on methods of transportation in the Book of Mormon to conclude that the narrative takes place in a limited geographical area (approximately 200 by 500 miles), which has implications for prophetic references to the “promised land” (sometimes referring to a limited area and sometimes to the entire American continent), how we define “Lamanites” (as a term with application that has shifted over time to apply to more than the descendants of Laman), and whether we should expect to find concrete evidence of Lehite nations in the Americas.


The Summary

In this article, Brian Hales reviews evidence relating to the extent of the geographic area in which the Book of Mormon takes place, finding, as others before him, that descriptions of distances and travel methods suggest a limited area for the book’s events. In particular, he details (and rejects) proposals for large scale animal or river-based travel, which, when applied to travel between the cities of Nephi and Zarahemla, implies an area of about 200 by 500 miles. Hales then works to align this view with passages and prophetic references that apply a more hemispheric view, including ones that refer to a hemispheric-scale “Promised Land”, and to “Lamanites” occupying far-flung areas of the continent. He outlines how these terms have shifted or applied to multiple contexts, helping indicate how the Indigenous peoples of the Americas could be a “remnant of the House of Israel”, even if the Lehite’s own geographic (and anthropological) impact was limited.

In term of animals, Hales places his focus on the horse, citing research identifying the horse as the animal with the largest impact on historical transportation and travel times, with civilizations using the horse being markedly different from those without. After reviewing Book of Mormon passages related to agriculture, transportation, travel, communication, and warfare, Hales concludes that, while possibly using horses to pull “chariots” or as a food source, the Lehites more closely resemble non-horse cultures, and did not likely use horses as a swift means of transportation. References in the book to horses could be explained by inexact translations (that could actually refer to deer or tapir) or the poor proliferation, lack of domestication and subsequent disappearance of those horses.

Hales also addresses the theory that rivers could be used for quick, large-scale transport. Though river travel is possible, that travel is not often convenient, with obstacles (e.g., waterfalls) and the difficulty of upstream travel hindering the broad use of waterways for swift transport, even in areas like the Mississippi basin and Joseph Smith’s own “heavily rivered environment”. Upstream travel methods such as sailing, poling, zigzagging, and rowing remained slow, effortful affairs until the advent of the steam engine. That the Book of Mormon fails to mention river travel, with few sites described as being near rivers, suggests (absent some largely untenable assumptions) rivers did not enable mass faster-than-foot travel among the Lehites.

The assumption of foot travel allows for reasonable estimates of the Book of Mormon’s geographical area. The account of Alma the Elder’s escape from the land of Nephi includes a travel time of 21 days from the place of Mormon to the land of Zarahemla. Given the likely limitations of Alma’s group of several hundred (including children and the sick and elderly), and the known travel speeds of similar parties, Hales estimates a land-travel range of 242 to 440 miles for the trip, corresponding to a direct distance of about 180 miles. Doubling that distance (as Zarahemla is in the “heart” of the Nephite lands) and allowing for additional space north of Zarahemla produces Hales’ rough dimensions of 200 by 500 miles.

Hales then discusses the ramifications of this limited geography. The relatively small scale of the Lehite promised land allows for other potential promised lands not on record. In that light, Nephi’s apparent vision of the promised land being visited by Columbus suggests that the term has multiple meanings, one applying to a larger proportion of the hemisphere, and one applying more specifically to the Lehite homeland. As that more limited promised land no longer appears to exist, with its inhabitants and their religious connection to Israel scattered out of collective memory, modern references to the Promised Land might primarily lean on its hemispheric meaning.

This dual-definition could also apply to the term “Lamanites”, which transitioned quickly from an ancestral identifier to an ideological one (i.e., “I shall call them Lamanites (link to Jacob 1:13-14) that seek to destroy the people of Nephi”), and which itself did not exist for a span of several centuries until revived by those who “rejected the gospel” following the years of peace in 4 Nephi. According to Hales, being the “seed” of Laman appears to reference a people’s religious characteristics, rather than being ancestry-related, a view supported by the Old Testament and the Pearl of Great Price. Alma the Younger also prophesied that “whosoever remaineth…shall be numbered among the Lamanites”–even in a limited geography, this would potentially include all the Indigenous inhabitants of the American continent, as suggested by Joseph Smith himself.

For Hales, a limited geography should also temper our expectations for validating the location of Book of Mormon events. In addition to the endemic warfare described in the Book of Mormon, subsequent population decline and encounters with later Europeans would make genetic, anthropological or archaeological detection difficult. Despite this, the Book of Mormon still names those inhabitants as a remnant of Israel, with Israel’s covenant blessings continuing to apply. These promises are governed by “belief, not lineage…they and all nations may join the gathered House of Israel, defined by those who ‘have loved me and kept my commandments’”.


The Reflection

Hales contributions help reinforce that a limited geography arises directly from a close reading of the Book of Mormon text, rather than being required to fill some pre-existing ideological need. Critics, of course, much preferring that we believe implausible or untrue things, may choose to ignore Hales’ detailed arguments, and most members, for their part, may continue to hold to an easily (if mistakenly) assumed hemispheric scale for the book’s events. Though those ideas have negatively impacted the faith of some, I don’t see either case as particularly bothersome—I imagine that many physicists are annoyed with lay theories of, say, gravity, but those lay theories shouldn’t get in the way of how physicists do their work. The scholar can explain more thorough, if called upon, and most members, most of the time, don’t need to think twice about Book of Mormon geography, especially when it comes to the issue of their salvation. Christ will need to be patient with our mistaken ideas on a number of fronts, and we can likewise be patient with those who think the Book of Mormon took place at a hemispheric scale, or in Singapore, or on the moon.

My only quibble with Hales is his implicit agreement with critics that a limited geography would mean a lack of an ancestral connection between Lehi and most of the American continent’s inhabitants. Given the timescales we’re working with and likely migration patterns, almost anyone present on the American continent would be likely to have “authentic genealogical ties” to Lehi, not just those close to the original Promised Land, even without a traceable genetic connection. Indigenous members of the church could likely say with confidence that they share a literal ancestral connection with Lehi of old, though the metaphorical ties suggested by Hales remain meaningful and coherent on their own. The remnant of Israel in the Americas can claim and benefit from ties to the patriarchs of old, similar to how those of European descent often claim (exceedingly distant) ties to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

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