|The Garden Tomb from Wikipedia|
Recently Daniel Peterson (who incidentally is one of my favorite authors and lecturers) wrote a piece on thecurrent status of Book of Mormon geography in the Mormon community. He wrote: “One of the issues over which I've recently been saddened to see impassioned strife among some members of the church ... is Book of Mormon geography. I find it almost unbelievable. Surely this is a secondary issue, at most. Nothing very important — certainly not our salvation — hangs upon having the precise GPS coordinates of the Jaredite city of Lib. Although an interesting topic for discussion, knowing exactly where the narrative of the Book of Mormon took place is far less momentous than believing that it did, in fact, take place.” (Daniel Peterson)
I too am distressed by the contention that this subject often seems to generate. Obviously it is not as important as the doctrine itself. However, is it fair to relegate the subject to the dustbin of irrelevance? I think it is going too far to say that it is of “secondary importance” or that “nothing very important” hangs on the precise location of a Book of Mormon city. While Christ has forbidden us to contend over such matters, He has encouraged us to seek out the truth of all things through His Spirit. And He inspired His prophet Mormon to include descriptions of Nephite geography in his condensed version of the ancient records, recorded in considerable detail, and using precious room on the plates to do so.
What was Mormon's purpose in including the geographical material in the Book of Mormon? Certainly not to pad the record. And he was not writing for his fellow Nephites, but for us, the future gentiles. I believe that his sincere desire was that we might know where the events that he wrote about actually took place. Is that important? Not as important as the doctrinal message. However, the doctrinal message is strengthened by the witness of time and place. Without these the message is limited.
If we didn't have the Sacred Grove, would Joseph's first vision carry as much weight? If we didn't have the site of the Kirtland Temple, would D&C 110 be as impressive? Was it important that Joseph knew the location of the hill where the plates were buried? Consider these additional questions: Would the Bible have as much power if we had no idea where biblical events took place—perhaps in Egypt or even Persia? Is it important where Christ ministered, taught, suffered and was resurrected? Certainly the Garden Tomb inspires Christians, and the Jews are spiritually strengthened by having the Western Wall. The place focuses their spiritual yearnings. Knowing the location of Armageddon helps us understand prophecy, and having visited Adam ondi Ahman prepares one for future events. Yes, place is important!
In a court setting, would a criminal trial proceed on a firm footing if the location of the crime scene were unknown? Not likely. The location is an important part of the evidence. In the same way, location is vital in understanding history, including the history of the Nephites.
It is interesting to note that in compiling the revelations for the Doctrine and Covenants, the date and place are generally given to strengthen the witness of the truth, for place is indeed a type of witness. Just as the testimonies of the three and the eight witnesses are important in establishing the truth of the Book of Mormon, so the witness of location is necessary to firmly establish the historical veracity of the Book of Mormon record.
The church leadership obviously values location. We have seen great effort and expense put forth to secure historical sites, and to beautify and restore them. In addition, the church has invested a great deal of money in sponsoring archaeological research through a department of BYU. I assume that the original intent of this effort was to identify culture related to the Book of Mormon peoples.
Within the last several decades the place identified as Nahum in the Book of Mormon has been located through the personal efforts of Warren Aston. Was this of no value in vindicating the claims of the book? Obviously it was! It is of great import and was worth all the effort spent in locating the site. Someone could have accused Aston of wasting his time and of pursuing frivolous goals, but I doubt that anyone would accuse him of that now. Why? Because place is important. While it is true that doctrine is of primary value, location's witness is one of the legs that supports the doctrine. Doctrine residing in an environmental limbo is not nearly as strong as one originating in time and place.