Editor’s Note: In this article archaeologist Garth Norman commemorates October for advancing Book of Mormon archaeology studies in Middle America, which was initiated informally by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Times and Seasons, October 1, 1842. Ancient America Foundation (AAF) publications  provide evidence for authenticity of the Book of Mormon, its divine authorship by ancient prophets of God and its translation by the gift and power of God by a modern prophet, Joseph Smith.


Did the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1842 Locate Book of Mormon Lands in Middle America?
by V. Garth Norman

October 1 is the anniversary of a little known event in early Church history that I believe, in consequence of significant research progress, now deserves recognition for identifying a region of major Book of Mormon lands and for initiating Book of Mormon archaeological historicity research. In a Times and Seasons editorial, October 1, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith after progressive study announced a discovery that the Book of Mormon “land southward” is located in Central America (Middle America), which would be from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as the narrow neck of land, south to Panama or at least Costa Rica, which as the Prophet pointed out, fits the description in Alma 22: 32 as the land that is “nearly surrounded by water.” Joseph’s discovery resulted from studying an exciting new book by explorer John Lloyd Stevens (Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, 1841) that for the first time was bringing major exposure to the outside world of magnificent ancient Maya ruins hidden in the jungles of Middle America.


The Church in Nauvoo began publishing the Times and Seasons periodical in 1839, the same year that Stevens began his explorations. Its motto, “Truth will prevail,” expressed a goal to promote truth and correct falsehoods, and was the main organ for publishing truths pertaining to the restored gospel to the Church members and the world. Many revelations to the Prophet, and his Book of Abraham translation, for instance, appeared in print for the first time in the Times and Seasons. In the spring of 1842, in consequence of too many errors appearing in print, the Prophet Joseph Smith took over the editorship and announced his personal responsibility for the contents of the paper (No. 9 of Vol. III, p. 710).

During the next six months he endeavored to raise the paper’s standard of excellence before turning over the editorship to John Taylor, which he announced in the November 15, 1842 edition, and expressed confidence that Elder Taylor would maintain the high quality of excellence that had developed (History of the Church 5: 193). The Prophet required that any errors of information published be corrected, in keeping with the paper’s motto. It should be evident that no significant misinformation circulated during the Prophet’s editorship without correction, and that the editorials in particular were intended for general interest and instruction of the Church members.

One of the distinctive features of Joseph’s short editorial career was the attention given to antiquities as they might relate to the scriptures. This sustained interest in Book of Mormon antiquities in particular was accelerated by publication the preceding year (1841) of John Lloyd Stephens’ explorations titled, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Stephens’ book with impressive drawings of spectacular temple buildings and monuments by artist Frederick Catherwood exposed in a major way to the outside world for the first time an extensive lost ancient civilization in the jungles of Central America (southern Mexico, Yucatan, and Guatemala).

Stephens’ explorations awakened keen interest, and are recognized today as the beginning of American archaeology. In a similar way, they can be recognized as the beginning of Book of Mormon archaeology. Shortly after Stephens’ publications hit the book market in 1841, Joseph received them as a gift and commented in his personal Journal History about their importance to the Book of Mormon. On June 25, 1842, Joseph recorded that Stephens and Catherwood had succeeded in collecting in the interior of America “a large amount of relics of the Nephites, or the ancient inhabitants of America treated of in the Book of Mormon,” which relics had recently landed in New York (History of the Church 5: 44). While the relics were judged to be of the “Nephites,” that was of course unknown, but illustrates Joseph’s frame of reference at that early date. The ruins of ancient Maya civilization were completely shrouded in mystery, and he held the key in the Book of Mormon to unlocking the lost history of ancient America civilization.

In the September 15th 1842 issue of the Times and Seasons, an extract from Stephens on Palenque, Mexico was published with editorial comments. The scripture about the narrow neck of land geography in Alma 22 was cited without discussion, implying reference to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec not far from Palenque. The next issue two weeks later (October 1) followed up with specific detail that shows studied progress to try and locate Book of Mormon lands and ruins. That front page editorial is particularly significant as the Prophet’s last and most specific statement on geography while he was editor, so it deserves careful attention.


The October 1 editorial titled “Zarahemla” precedes an extract from Stephens on the site of Quirigua in Guatemala. This editorial reveals a great deal about the Prophet’s thinking and interests in antiquities with respect to the Book of Mormon. The opening statement expresses his active interest in exploring possible locations of Book of Mormon lands:

Since our ‘Extract’ was published from Mr. Stephens’ ‘Incidents of Travel,’ & c. [preceding September 15 issue], we have found another important fact relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon.

This statement indicates that the prophet with his associates was searching for antiquities relative to the Book of Mormon. The new “fact” discovered is especially revealing:

Central America, or Guatemala, is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien [Panama] and once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south -The city of Zarahemla, burnt at the crucifixion of the Savior, and rebuilt afterwards, stood upon this land as will be seen from the following words in the book of Alma.

The editorial then quotes Alma chapter 22 verse 32 about the land located southward of the narrow neck of land being nearly surrounded by water. The second page of Stephens’ book contains a map of Central America charting his explorations from Costa Rica northward to Tabasco on the Gulf of Mexico near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as the “narrow neck of land,” and into Yucatan.

A sense of value in this new discovery and related antiquities to the Book of Mormon is seen in the next statement:

It is certainly a good thing for the excellency and veracity of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, that the ruins of Zarahemla [land not city] have been found where the Nephites left them.

This proactive search for antiquities related to the Book of Mormon reflects the Prophet’s absolute knowledge of the divine authenticity of Book of Mormon history, which placed the burden of proof on the skeptic to prove that the lands and ruins in question are not related to the Book of Mormon. Trying to put ourselves in Joseph Smith’s shoes with his convictions, we might better appreciate how easily he could settle the broad Book of Mormon geography picture with discovery of extensive ancient ruined cities of a lost civilization in Central America. The difference today is that we are approaching potential Book of Mormon relationships from the other end of the American archaeology scale, where cultural ties between distant places like the Middle East and Mesoamerica as required by the Book of Mormon, for example, demand a level of proof before Mesoamerica can even be considered as a possible setting for this record.

Joseph viewed the antiquities as a witness for the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Quirigua ruins in Guatemala were suggested as the possible city of Zarahemla, or some other Book of Mormon city.

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Quirigua is one of those famous Classic Maya cities that post dates Book of Mormon civilization, which for some time did not sustain Joseph’s early speculation. There is plenty of allowance for speculation and error in early stages of research. More recently, excavations in the deep alluvial flood deposits have uncovered extensive ruins that do date back into Book of Mormon times, and we now have a good candidate for the city of Siron as I currently view the geography. Later ruins reflect earlier culture, so it is not completely off base to start with the late visible ruins to explore cultural ties back to Book of Mormon times. For instance, I have documented the Royal Babylonian cubit (49.5 cm.) in hieroglyphic panels at Quirigua and Palenque, that Joseph also targeted, which I have first documented in early Book of Mormon period sculpture at Izapa in southern Mexico. (See my coming paper on exploring Standard Measures.)

The next statement expresses confidence that the elements are eternal so that ruins preserve knowledge from the past that can bear record of the truth.

. . . the Lord was and is, and is to come and his works never end; and he will bring every thing into judgment . . . yea, every secret thing, and they shall be revealed upon the house tops.

This statement reflects how all things bear witness of the things of God, from the past, present, and future, in things from under the earth, on the earth, and above the earth (Moses 6: 63).

Joseph’s last statement before the extract on Quirigua, drives home the challenge to search.

It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephen’s ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon; light cleaves to light, and facts are supported by facts. The truth injures no one . . . .

This challenge is not a truth/proof search, but is getting on the right track. Can we get into Joseph’s mind? This being land southward territory, in or near the land Zarahemla, and assuming the ruin dates from Book of Mormon times, then it would be very difficult, as he expressed, to prove Quirigua is not one of the cities mentioned in the Book of Mormon. And keep in mind, Joseph knew that in the Book of Mormon “the history of ancient America is unfolded” (Wentworth letter, March1, 1842). Can you sense his enthusiasm and flag waving to research it out?

That was really proposing front door proactive Book of Mormon archaeology. And while not professionally acceptable today, because it doesn’t fit popular American Anthropology research paradigms, it is just as legitimate as paleontology research method for example, forever enthusiastically and at enormous investment searching for missing bones to try and prove evolution origin theory. Joseph Smith had the courage to press forward in the same manner with a very different paradigm in Book of Mormon archaeology historicity research, “to assist the Saints in establishing the Book of Mormon as a revelation from God,” which was his last statement before the extract.

Why should we be content in letting physical anthropology research win the minds of youth in Western civilization education today, luring them into believing that the creator God of Christianity and the Book of Mormon is not real, because the theory of evolution is presumed to be the creation origin of life? The Prophet Joseph’s witness of Book of Mormon archaeology has enormous consequences and rewards for advancing real truth. Revealed religion does not have to debate science in the search for truth. Mormonism embraces all truth. The Book of Mormon is the most dynamic historic material witness of a living God that can challenge scientific dogma, and it seems to me if we do not explore and expose this side of the Book of Mormon that the Prophet Joseph Smith initiated, we permit evolution theory to win by default.

The Prophet, as he was concluding his editorial career, seems to assume the Saints would continue to seek knowledge from researching antiquities to add material witness of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. At least, that is how I read it. As such, I propose Joseph’s initial study of Stephens in the Times and Seasons in 1842 was the beginning of Book of Mormon archaeology, and may have even been the first invitation to pursue archaeological investigations of Stevens’ ruins in Middle America.


The Book of Mormon exploration challenge was not idle words. Seven months later President Smith’s clerk delivered from his office a proclamation to the Times and Seasons, dated May 15, 1843, titled “To the Saints Among All Nations,” announcing that according to “divine direction,”

. . . it appears to be the duty of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, to bring to Nauvoo, their precious things, such as antiquities, . . . petrifactions [fossils] as well as inscriptions and hieroglyphics, for the purpose of establishing a Museum of the great things of God, and the inventions of men, at Nauvoo.

John Taylor added editorial comments that the museum should be,

a receptacle of everything new and old, ancient and modern, antique, fanciful and substantial-indeed anything and everything that has a tendency to throw light upon ancient nations, their manners, customs, implements of husbandry and of war, their costume, ancient records, manuscripts, paintings, hieroglyphics, . . . anything that is calculated to enlighten the mind, enlarge the understanding, gratify the curiosity, and give general information.

This Museum development would obviously have included collections that explore possible Book of Mormon antiquities, but due to limited knowledge in that generation would have been very circumstantial. Broad interest included all nations and peoples past and present. What this says to me is that knowledge from the past in any specific area of interest, including Book of Mormon studies, should be inclusive not exclusive. In other words, it can best grow and be understood and accepted, not in isolation, but in proportion to knowledge expanding in neighboring areas from the past to the present. Knowledge of Book of Mormon history and culture is beginning to be understood and appreciated within Mesoamerican civilization. As we are able to discover more accurately where and how it fits, research can also reach outward to explore possible relationships of Mesoamerican/Book of Mormon peoples to other neighboring cultures in North and South America.


Just as Stephens’ exploration of ancient Maya ruins was the beginning of American archaeology, from the perspective of the early Saints, Stevens opened the door to exploring Book of Mormon lands. All of the Classic Maya ruins that Stevens explored and Catherwood drew are post period Book of Mormon. However, in recent years Mayan archaeological research exploration has progressed to reveal that many Maya ruins overlay earlier Book of Mormon period occupations that may have been settled in Nephite-Mulekite times as described in the Book of Mormon.

John Taylor as editor of the Times and Seasons in 1843 expressed the view that the Lord may have designed the coming forth of the Book of Mormon before any knowledge of related ruined cities was known, so that the world could produce a material witness. And it seemed miraculous to him that Stephens’ discoveries of ancient Maya ruins came so soon after publication of the Book of Mormon.

We are now in that anticipated day when fulfillment of that vision can occur in bringing the lost world of the Book of Mormon to light. I pay tribute to the Prophet Joseph Smith and his associates for the vision they gained so early about where to explore, and for their conviction that it is important and worthy of our dedication and sacrifices to pursue archaeological, geographical, and historical research of lands of the Book of Mormon.

(Note: For more information on related research go to www.ancientamerica.org)

2003Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.