Why it matters: the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon

This post discusses why the origin and the setting of the Book of Mormon remain important issues in our day.

Like many other Latter-day Saints, I've been active in missionary and reactivation efforts. Every individual is unique, but common objections I've heard involve the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon. People inside and outside of the Church have serious problems with the narrative that Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon by reading words off a stone in the hat (SITH). People also have problems with the setting of the Book of Mormon, not only because of the uncertainty around the setting, but because of the perception that the Church has rejected the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah. 

This post outlines the issues and offers suggestions about how to improve the current approach to better inform Latter-day Saints and their friends and to help them make informed decisions that will enhance faith and devotion.

Truths about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon were well established by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, both formally in publications and informally in letters and conversations. 

From the beginnings of the Restoration, critics have attacked the credibility and reliability of Joseph and Oliver regarding these matters. Nevertheless, faithful Latter-day Saints have long adhered to what Joseph and Oliver taught. Church leaders have repeatedly reiterated their claims in General Conference and other venues.

However, in recent decades, some Latter-day Saint scholars have questioned the teachings of Joseph and Oliver regarding the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon. Some have outright rejected and repudiated those teachings in favor of the claims by critics that Joseph and Oliver misled everyone about these topics. Some have reinterpreted Church history to accommodate the critical narratives. 

While many Latter-day Saints remain faithful and active despite the critical narratives, others have succumbed to the doubts and cognitive dissonance that arise from rejecting what Joseph and Oliver taught. 

Antagonists of the Church use social media, websites, videos, and books to undermine faith in the Book of Mormon by focusing on these questions about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon. Missionaries report that these questions are a major impediment for people they are contacting and teaching. YSA leaders, including Institute teachers, report widespread concern about these issues.

Surveys of Latter-day Saints, current and former, show that belief or disbelief in the Book of Mormon is directly related to acceptance of Joseph Smith as a prophet, the Church as divinely directed, and even faith in Christ. This is not surprising, given that the Book of Mormon is the "keystone of our religion."

The critical narratives have acquired a quasi-official endorsement through the Gospel Topics Essays on Book of Mormon Translation and Book of Mormon Geography. 

The introduction to the Gospel Topics Essays quotes D&C 88:118 and explains that "Seeking ‘out of the best books’ does not mean seeking only one set of opinions, but it does require us to distinguish between reliable sources and unreliable sources."

The essays were originally intended “to provide accurate and transparent information on church history and doctrine within the framework of faith…” Leaders were told that “When church members have questions regarding [LDS] history and doctrine, possibly arising when detractors spread misinformation and doubt, you may want to direct their attention to these resources.”

However, the essays as currently published do not provide accurate and transparent information because they deliberately omit what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery taught about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon. 

Consequently, readers are left without accurate and transparent information.

We'll look at these essays separately in the hope that these essays will be revised to promote faith by referring to what Joseph and Oliver taught rather than to support the critical narratives.

Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation


This essay deliberately omits what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery taught about the translation by means of the Urim and Thummim (U&T) that came with the plates.

Readers deserve to be informed about what Joseph and Oliver taught, even though their claims contradict the currently popular “stone-in-the-hat” (SITH) narrative.

The current version of the essay is also misleading in several respects because it is carefully worded to accommodate the SITH narrative. Rather than acknowledge the irreconcilable contradiction between the SITH narrative and what Joseph and Oliver taught, the essay simply

(i)                  omits what Joseph and Oliver taught and

(ii)                tries to dodge the conflict by redefining the term Urim and Thummim to include the seer stone, contrary to the plain meaning of what Joseph and Oliver taught. 

To fulfill the stated purpose of the essay, at a minimum the essay should

(i)                  quote what Joseph and Oliver taught

(ii)                acknowledge the conflict between the SITH and U&T narratives, and

(iii)               outline multiple alternative reconciliations for consideration. Among these are the redefinition of terms approach and the evidence that the seer stone accounts originated with a demonstration rather than the actual translation process.

When considering the essays, it is essential that readers distinguish between "accurate information" and mere commentary. In this case, it's significant that the essay on translation never fully quotes what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation

Instead, the essay inexplicably

(i) quotes an excerpt from the preface to the 1830 edition that omits the key point that Joseph took the translation from the plates; i.e., not from a stone in a hat. "I would inform you that I translated by the gift & power of God & caused to be written one hundred & sixteen pages the which I took from the Book of Lehi which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi by the hand of Mormon." 

(ii) misrepresents the question posed in the Oct. 1831 conference (note 25), which involved the "coming forth of the Book of Mormon," not the translation per se. The "coming forth" included all of Moroni's instructions (which Oliver subsequently provided, with Joseph's assistance, in his eight essays on the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon), the difference between the abridged plates (translated in Harmony) and Nephi's original plates (translated in Fayette), the repository of records in the Hill Cumorah, etc.

(iii) omits what Joseph wrote in the Wentworth letter, "With the records was found a curious instrument, which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God

(iv) omits what Joseph wrote in the Elders' Journal. "How, and where did you obtain the book of Mormon? 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. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the Book of Mormon." (Elders’ Journal, July 1838)

(v) omits the relevant, critical passage from what Oliver Cowdery wrote about his experience. The essay includes only the part not in bold from JS-H: "These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, "Interpreters," the history or record called "The book of Mormon." (Joseph Smith—History, Note, 1)

(vi) omits what Oliver related about Moroni telling Joseph it would be his “privilege, if obedient to the commandments of the Lord, to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record."

(vii) omits other statements that reiterate what Joseph and Oliver always claimed

but instead 

(viii) relies instead on claims by various SITH proponents, such as the dubious "Last Testimony of Sister Emma" and the original anti-Mormon article by Jonathan Hadley, which Joseph denounced in the Preface to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, along with commentary by editors who have long taught SITH. 

For example, look at note 20, which cites Mark Ashurst-McGee's Master's Thesis. Mark is an employee of the Church History Department and an editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. The note supposedly supports this statement: "As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture." While not an unreasonable interpretation, this is purely Mark's speculation about what Joseph was thinking. This is pure mindreading, written in the essay as fact. It's the opposite of the "accurate information" these essays were intended to gather.

For a detailed, line-by-line analysis, see 


Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography

The essay appropriately expresses the long-held position of neutrality regarding Book of Mormon settings in the New World other than Cumorah. However, avoiding the Cumorah issue is an ongoing problem.

When this essay was first published in January 2019, I posted several comments about it, pointing our errors and omissions.

Fortunately, the essay was revised a few weeks later. The revision addressed some, but not all, of my comments.

The most obvious error and omission is the topic of Cumorah. The essay completely ignores the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah, leaving readers to wonder how they should treat those teachings. Has the Church abandoned or rejected those teachings? Has the Church accepted the views of M2C scholars that those teachings were merely erroneous speculation by the prophets, including Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery?

Critics on social media have pointed out the disparity between (i) the long-held teachings of Church leaders about Cumorah in New York and (ii) the prevalent scholarly opinion that previous Church leaders were ignorant speculators who were wrong.

Latter-day Saints and their friends (investigators), as well as missionaries everywhere, would welcome clarity on this issue.

I've provided specific suggestions for how this essay can be improved.


Numerous latter-day prophets and apostles have reiterated Joseph Smith's teaching that the Book of Mormon is the "keystone of our religion." 

Elder Gary E. Stevenson declared that "the Book of Mormon is still the keystone of our religion... In gospel terms it is a gift and blessing from the Lord that the keystone of our religion is something as tangible and graspable as the Book of Mormon and that you can hold it and read it. ...
President Ezra Taft Benson expanded on those teachings of Joseph Smith. He said: 'There are three ways in which the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion. It is the keystone in our witness of Christ. It is the keystone of our doctrine. It is the keystone of testimony.'”
(2016, October, Gary E. Stevenson, ‘Look to the Book, Look to the Lord,’ Ensign, November 2016, ¶ 19–20)

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