LDS interest in Book of Mormon historicity
The Book of Mormon was first published in 1830. It was controversial then and controversial now. As one of the foundations for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), it is considered scripture by millions of people around the world, but nonbelievers ignore it or consider it fiction or worse.
In addition to religious teachings, the Book of Mormon describes specific historical events in both the Old World (Jerusalem and environs) and the New World. Although it refers by name to specific cities and geographical sites in the New World, these ancient names have no modern correlation. Consequently, there is no definitive correlation between locations described by the Book of Mormon and current geography.
For two centuries, faithful scholars and sceptics have debated the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Proposed correlations based on inferences and interpretations have produced two main schools of thought regarding the location of Book of Mormon events.
Regarding the historicity of the Book of Mormon, there are two main schools of thought. One is the MesoAmerican theory, best articulated by John Sorenson. He has compiled a comprehensive book titled "Mormon's Codex" that expands on his work in this area. His earlier book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, was a solid foundation for the MesoAmerican theory. Excerpts were printed in the Ensign, and it has influenced generations of scholars at BYU (not to mention myriad bloggers).
Basically this theory holds that the events described in the Book of Mormon took place in a relatively small area of Central America. Supporters find numerous similarities between Mayan and Olmec culture, on one hand, and Lehite and Jaredite culture on the other. Critics (Mormon and non-Mormon alike) say these similiarities are a stretch. There is no conclusive evidence one way or the other.
The primary alternative to the MesoAmerican theory is the "Heartland" theory, lately publicized most by Rod Meldrum, who conducts conferences and seminars on the topic. His book, "The Book of Mormon in America's Heartland," is probably the best know. It's a fairly comprehensive explanation of the Heartland theory.
Basically this theory holds that the events described in the Book of Mormon took place in a large area, from Iowa to New York, with most of the action in the Midwestern United States. Supporters find numerous similarities between Hopewell and Adena culture, on one hand, and Lehite and Jaredite culture on the other. Critics (Mormon and non-Mormon alike) say these similiarities are a stretch. There is no conclusive evidence one way or the other.
The Rule of Equity
Many readers of The Rule of Equity ask my opinion about Book of Mormon historicity, so I'll provide some cursory comments here.
Although The Rule of Equity deals with many aspects of ancient North America, including the sophisticated civilizations that once lived in what is now Canada, the United States, and Mexico, the book doesn't take a position on Book of Mormon historicity. That said, I have been researching the topic for decades. I've attended a variety of seminars and conferences where these issues have been debated. I've studied both LDS and non-LDS research on archaeology and sociology related to both theories. And I've read the various citations to scriptures, journals, the Times and Seasons, comments made by LDS General Authorities, and endless research papers, blogs, etc.
As a lawyer, I always seek to articulate the strongest arguments made both sides of an issue, and in this case, I think I've been able to do so for both the MesoAmerican and Heartland theories.
As a scientist, I've not been satisfied with "book learning," so I've visited many of the sites invoked by proponents of both theories.
So here is my conclusion. It's interesting that many of the early critics complained that Joseph Smith was merely describing what he knew; i.e., he had grown up among ancient ruins in New England and his descriptions matched what "everyone" knew back then. Now, of course, the critics claim the opposite; i.e., that the descriptions don't match anything in the real world.
But when we read the Book of Mormon descriptions of their civilization, including their structures, crops, clothing, weapons, and method of warfare, it is difficult to envision that they are referring to MesoAmerica. By contrast, the descriptions closely match what we find in ancient North America. The strongest objection I've seen so far to the Heartland theory is the description of the river Sidon, but even that objection relies on inferences that the text doesn't require. Consequently, in my view the Heartland theory makes the most sense. I expect that future discoveries will only strengthen the correlation--if not prove it beyond reasonable doubt (which I do expect to happen).
That said, I must point out that I agree with many of the criticisms of the work of some of the Heartland proponents. For example, the video "Lost Civilizations" includes interviews with many scholars who have formally objected to the way their statements were used. There is a lot of commingling of artifacts to support inferences that are not legitimate. At the same time, many of these critics overstate their own objections.
In the long run (and, hopefully, in the near term), the actual scientific evidence will clarify the history and we'll all have a better idea about who, what, when, where, and how.
For religious people, the stakes, of course, could not be greater. Every major religion is based on a sacred book (or at least a compilation of sacred teachings) shrouded more or less in mystery, whether due to its antiquity or its origins. The Bible, for example, contains specific references to known historical events and locations, but it also contains many specific references to events and places that are not currently known. Consequently, faith is based not on historicity (who could "prove" from history that Jesus was resurrected?) but, hopefully for most of us, the power of the teachings and one's spiritual experiences. In many cases, however, belief is based on tradition, tribalism, coercion or even apathy (as in, not searching for oneself or not caring). In many cases, faith is rejected because of lack of physical or scientific "proof" of the religious teachings, combined with a desire not to adhere to the teachings or participate in the religious community, regardless of its merits.
But the Book of Mormon is different. It is not the source of murky history; we know exactly what happened and when it was written and published. Some dispute the accounts of the participants by saying Joseph Smith lied; i.e., that instead of translating golden plates, he wrote the book himself from his imagination or copied it from other sources. For two hundred years, people have debated the historicity of the book. So now, if (and I think when) archaeological finds validate the historicity of the Book of Mormon, to the point where scientists accept the evidence independent of the religious implications, where does that put believers and nonbelievers?
Many Christian churches are on record labeling the Book of Mormon as a fraud, anti-Christ, Satanic, etc. Other Christian churches are less adamant, but they reject the implications that follow from a historically accurate Book of Mormon. Non-Christian religions either reject the divinity of Christ or consider him one among many peers, or one of a line of prophets. A Book of Mormon vindicated by science would, for the first time, really, "prove" the divinity of Christ and consequently of the LDS church. Those who don't believe in any religion would face the reality of a religious book having accurately described an ancient civilization more than two centuries before the scientific evidence became available.
So we'll wait and see what happens.
But meanwhile, we can speculate and enjoy some great novels.