The Book of Mormon is regarded by the wider world as fiction. Some give it credit for having interesting things to say, but most do not consider it to be an authentic ancient document, instead calling it a modern pseudepigraph fabricated by Joseph Smith. Faithful Latter-day Saints have objected to this, and have done their best to defend the position that the Book of Mormon is what it says it is. As part of their defense, many Mormons have tried to locate where the events in the book took place in the Americas. Some, like the FIRM Foundation, advocate the Heartland Model, which places the major events in the book within North America, while others, like John Sorenson, prefer to place it in Mesoamerica. One apologist, Dennis Horne (a man of some renown among Mormon apologists), has recently argued that such folk have their approach all wrong. I quote from his blog post:
Book of Mormon geography location theorizing has become enough of an issue among scholars and laymen alike, that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a formal Gospel Topic essay stating a neutral position. The pertinent sentences read: “the Church’s only position is that the events the Book of Mormon describes took place in the ancient Americas.” And, “The Church does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas.” When I first read the entire statement, and the quoted sentences in particular, I thought it very wise, to the point of inspired.
As you might already know, I am among the crowd that dismisses the Book of Mormon as fiction, so the ongoing discussion about how best to locate the Book of Mormon normally does not interest me much, but this one caught my eye because it managed to be so wrong. There’s plenty to disagree with in his post, but here’s the part I object to most of all:
A wonderful thing about not designating a narrowly definable geographic location is to avoid giving the devil’s mortal emissaries a spot to target as well. The Prophet Joseph Smith said Moroni told him that there “was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent” (JS—H 1:34; italics added). Instead of being able to concentrate all their disparate resources and ire on one piece of real estate, they have to examine and attempt to refute everywhere in all the Americas; a much less effective pursuit. Whatever and wherever they argue against, they could always be focusing on the wrong spot, and therefore be irrelevant.
That  there points to a footnote citing this article by Dallin H. Oaks, in which Oaks claims that “the opponents of historicity must prove that the Book of Mormon has no historical validity for any peoples who lived in the Americas in a particular time frame”. Oaks and Horne seem very satisfied with this position, Horne especially giving credit to the Mormon church for finding an inspired way to thwart the devil’s emissaries, by which I assume he means people like me. Unfortunately for them, this position is wrong in two important ways.
The first way this goes wrong is that it leaves wide open the possibility that the events in the Book of Mormon did not happen in any physical location at all. If anything described within actually happened, it had to happen somewhere, and there are very many events described in the book, so I think it quite reasonable to think that there should be at least one event should have produced an effect that would be detectable to today’s archaeologists and connectable to the book’s text. The Iliad, for comparison, can be connected to real-world locations even though many of the events it describes are impossible. And yet Horne, Oaks, and the Mormon church in general are willing to admit that the Book of Mormon has no such connection! How is it that this book, which is supposed to be not just a true history but a guide to the most vital truths of human existence, cannot match the historicity of a story about characters like Zeus and Poseidon? To me, the obvious conclusion is that the Book of Mormon is not connected to ancient American history at all because it’s all fictional; if Oaks and Horne and friends can’t meet the burden of proving that even one of its events happened, then I am justified in assuming that it’s all false, and contrary to what Oaks says, I am not under any burden to positively prove that it never happened at every conceivable location.
The second way that Horne’s position goes wrong is that, contrary to his claims (and contrary to the church’s own words), there is one definable geographic location that has been designated for several Book of Mormon events. That location is the Hill Cumorah, and it presents a testable target for historicity theories. The church openly declares that this hill, where Joseph Smith supposedly found the gold plates, is indeed the hill described in the Book of Mormon’s pages, where Mormon and Moroni hid several precious ancient records, and where the Nephites were finally destroyed by the Lamanites, and also where the Jaredites had their final suicidal battle. These clear statements are backed up by years’ worth of statements by church leaders affirming that all of these events happened at that same central hill. There is one pin firmly in the Book of Mormon’s map, and it is up for anyone to test. Now, if the hill were up to the test, I would not be bringing this up as a problem with Horne’s position (though I might tease him for skipping over evidence in favor of a friendly position), but this is a big problem because the hill is not up to the test. In fact, the hill is empty. There is no evidence of the massive battles that supposedly occurred there, or of the records that were supposedly hid there, or even of the stone box in which Joseph claimed to have found the plates.
In short, in his attempt to praise and defend the Mormon church, Dennis Horne (not to mention Dallin Oaks) revealed that he does not understand the church’s own historical position, and that he does not understand the rules of evidence. He has highlighted the weakness of the church’s position and called it strength. For a scholar who claims to be after truth, that might be the saddest state that I can imagine being in.