Moroni’s Marvelous Move from Mesoamerica to Manchester

Moroni Delivering the Plates to Joseph Smith (C.C.A. Christensen)

Robert Boylan, a Mormon apologist blogger, has written a series of blistering attack posts attempting to discredit my book Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions. Boylan has described it as a “joke of a book”[1] and a “mess of a book,”[2] and he has churned out at least twenty posts in the past few weeks attacking it (and at least a couple more posts about me that are not about the book!). Given Boylan’s quantity (which is not the same as quality) of output, it is doubtful that I will be able to respond to all of his posts in which I am mentioned (I tend to be almost Monk-like in writing, laboring long to make everything I write as close to perfect as I can get it).

Bibliographical Nitpicking

In one of his attack pieces, Boylan takes me to task for a brief comment I made in the book about Moroni’s supposed journey from Mesoamerica to what is now upstate New York.[3] Boylan characterizes my comment as “an attempt to call its plausibility into question.” He quotes part of what I said on the matter, offers a defense of the plausibility of Moroni’s journey, and lambasts me for failing to interact with Book of Mormon scholar/apologist John L. Sorenson’s defense. Not content to make his point, Boylan engages in his usual poke-in-the-eye style of polemical rhetoric:

This only proves again, notwithstanding the attempted appearance of producing a scholarly work, in reality, it is just typical counter-cult “boundary maintenance” that is cleaned up (basically, the literary form of a pig with lipstick—it is still a pig you are trying to make look pretty). The target audience is clearly not informed Latter-day Saints but gullible Evangelicals who know next to nothing about “Mormonism”….

This harsh assessment is rather absurd, given that the book in question is just 300 pages long but has over 600 footnotes citing 475 sources—including citations from over 230 sources pertaining to Mormon studies.[4] Boylan justifies his dismissive comments about the whole book on the basis of two sentences in the book that Boylan apparently thinks should have been turned into a page or more of interaction with a particular Mormon scholar on the issue. Sorry to disappoint those who wanted a book of three thousand pages, but I wanted to produce a book people might actually read.

Avoiding the Main Point

Let’s put my full comment about Moroni’s journey on the record here:

The fact that Joseph did not look at the gold plates when dictating his “translation” means that the Book of Mormon need have no relation to the supposed gold plates at all. Joseph’s method of producing the text of the Book of Mormon in effect renders the gold plates irrelevant. There was no need for Moroni, whom the Book of Mormon identifies as its last ancient author, to carry the gold plates (weighing forty pounds or more according to Joseph’s associates, though if they really were gold they should have weighed closer to two hundred pounds) thousands of miles from Central America to upstate New York (a tall order, to put it mildly) in order to bury them for Joseph to discover fourteen centuries later. (The people of ancient Mesoamerica had no pack horses or other beasts of burden, so Moroni would have had to carry the plates, along with the stone spectacles and the breastplate, on his own.) Yet Joseph did not need the plates, the stone spectacles, the breastplate, or anything other than what he already had, his small treasure-hunting seer stone and his hat, along with the divine revelation Mormons claim he received.[5]

As anyone can see by reading the whole paragraph, the point I was making was that Joseph did not need the plates, the stone spectacles, the breastplate, or anything else Moroni might have carried from Central America to upstate New York, in order to translate the Book of Mormon. Of course, it would be possible. I merely mentioned the difficulty of him doing so while carrying perhaps two hundred pounds of stuff (and it would still have been very heavy even if we accept the 40+ pounds estimates for the plates Joseph had, since the stone spectacles and the breastplate would have added to the burden). I did not elaborate or argue the point because I was not arguing that Moroni could not possibly have pulled it off but that he need not have done so because there was no reason for him to do so. I made this point explicitly four times in four of the five sentences in the paragraph, three of which Boylan omitted from his quotation. Although this was clearly the point I was making, Boylan said nothing about it. Thus, Boylan made absolutely no attempt to respond to the main point of the paragraph that he partially quoted. Instead, he focused on arguing that the trip was “plausible” and “not fantastic.”

Did Moroni Leave the Land of the Lamanites?

Boylan, like most contemporary Mormon apologists, assumes that Moroni traveled from Mesoamerica (probably starting somewhere in southeast Mexico or possibly northwest Guatemala) to what is now upstate New York, depositing the gold plates in the hill near Joseph’s home where he would obtain them fourteen centuries later. This scenario appears to be required by the conventional LDS academic model of Book of Mormon geography, according to which essentially all of the events described in the Americas took place in that small region of Mesoamerica, and the conventional understanding that Joseph found the gold plates buried in a box near his home because that is where Moroni had buried them shortly before his death. Hence, John Sorenson (the LDS scholar Boylan scolds me for not engaging on the issue of Moroni’s journey), referring to the gold plates as “the Codex,” wrote, “How did the Codex get to a hill in New York from southern Mexico after the final battle involving the Nephites? The obvious answer is that someone carried it there, over a vast distance.”[6]

One problem with this scenario is that there does not seem to be any basis for it in the Book of Mormon itself. Here are the relevant bits of information that the narrative provides:

  • ca. AD 385: The final battle at Cumorah, just before which Mormon hid most of the plates in the hill Cumorah except the ones he gave to his son Moroni, who had led an army of ten thousand and was one of a dozen Nephite survivors (Mormon 6:1-12)
  • ca. AD 400: Mormon has died along with others of the few surviving Nephites; Moroni is alone, with no friends or relatives, and nowhere to go (Mormon 8:1-7)
  • ca. AD 400—: The Lamanites engage in seemingly endless warfare with one another (Mormon 8:8)
  • Undated: Moroni is finished writing about the Lamanites and is going to hide the record (Mormon 8:13-14)
  • Undated: Moroni has abridged the record of the people of Jared (the Book of Ether). He is taking care not to make himself known to the Lamanites, who are still killing Nephites, and so is wandering to remain safe from them (Moroni 1:1-3)
  • ca. AD 421: Moroni adds some final words before sealing up the records (Moroni 10:1-2)

The precise dates are not particularly important here since our focus is on the relative dating of these events in relation to one another. The key passage is Moroni 1:1-3, in which Moroni states that he is randomly moving around from place to place to keep from falling into the hands of the Lamanites, who are still killing whatever Nephites still remain. We are not told when Moroni wrote this, but it would have to be after about 400 and before about 420. His statement entails that the Lamanite threat remained a significant issue throughout his wandering, which means that he is not referring to a journey taking him thousands of miles from the Lamanite-dominated region. The text does not absolutely preclude such a journey that does not happen to be mentioned, but the natural reading of the text is that Moroni’s wandering to stay out of the Lamanites’ grasp continued until at least close to his death.

One other chronological consideration should be mentioned here, and that concerns Moroni’s age. There is no precise information about his age given, but it is reasonable to surmise that he would have been at least in his 20s if not older when he led an army of ten thousand men. From Mormon 2:3 we are given to understand that Mormon was born about AD 310, making him about 75 years old at the final battle at Cumorah, when he says he was getting old (Mormon 6:6). This information suggests a rough date of around 350 for the birth of Moroni, which would make him about 35 years old at Cumorah and a little over 70 years old when he finished the record.

If Moroni had made a journey from Mexico to Manchester, it would have begun sometime after AD 400 and been completed shortly after AD 420. The implication of Moroni 1:1-3 is that he spent at least a considerable amount of those twenty years, if not all of them, on the run from the Lamanites. Boylan is flat wrong, then, when he asserts that “Moroni had 35+ years” to make the trip, “from ~AD 385 with the final battle at Cumorah to AD 421 with the burial of the plates.” According to Mormon 8:1-7 and Moroni 1:1-3, sometime after AD 400 Moroni was still in the land dominated by the Lamanites and moving around to avoid capture by them. This means that Moroni had less than twenty years to make the trip, if we assume that he must have made it (again, Moroni 1:1-3 is against any such trip occurring).

Since the Book of Mormon provides no information about this supposed journey, we cannot determine its route. The most direct route for someone walking from the Veracruz region in southeast Mexico (where Sorenson’s model would indicate as the starting point) to Palmyra, New York, would be over 2,700 miles. This calculation assumes a route that hugged the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico up into east Texas, through modern-day Houston, then northeast through Memphis, Cincinnati, and then along Lake Erie and east to Palmyra. Of course, this is a best-case scenario and ignores the specific challenges that Moroni would have faced along the way. If we accept the Mormon tradition that Moroni traveled through the American Southwest to Utah and then east before getting to upstate New York, the trip would have been over 5,000 miles![7]

Critics of Mormonism are not the only ones who think Moroni would not have made the trip. First of all, many Mormons are convinced that the climactic events of the Book of Mormon took place in the Great Lakes region where Joseph’s boyhood home was located. There is a bustling cottage industry devoted to this model of Book of Mormon geography that produces books, videos, and websites defending this view, and that holds regular conferences and provides guided tours of supposed Book of Mormon locations in America.[8]

Second, at least one fairly prominent Mormon scholar who adheres to the more academically conventional Mesoamerican model has concluded that Moroni probably did not travel to upstate New York during his mortal lifetime. Brant Gardner, a Mormon anthropologist who has written a six-volume commentary on the Book of Mormon, admits in that work that the book’s narrative suggests that Moroni never left Mesoamerica during his lifetime. Commenting on Moroni 1:2-3, Gardner observes, “The danger he feels confirms that he is still in Mesoamerica.”[9] Earlier, in his comment on Mormon 8:4, Gardner offers some speculation as to how the gold plates got to the hill in the Palmyra/Manchester area: “If Moroni as an angel could take them away at the close of the translation, then as an angel he could also deposit them within walking distance of Joseph Smith’s home.”[10] In other words, Moroni as a mortal might have hidden the plates somewhere in or near Mesoamerica, where they remained until the 1820s when Moroni as an angel was able to retrieve them and bury them near Joseph’s home! The explanation is so obviously ad hoc (why rebury the plates rather than simply handing them to Joseph?) that Gardner himself does not seem confident about it. Rightly so: Joseph’s accounts of the discovery of the plates tacitly indicate that Moroni had buried the plates in the hill near Joseph’s future home before Moroni’s death. This understanding is close to explicit in Joseph’s 1838 statement reported in the Elders’ Journal:

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.[11]

Gardner is at least partially correct: Moroni hypothetically could have hidden the plates anywhere in Mesoamerica, died, become an angel, and then miraculously whisked the plates from their hiding place to Manchester in order to deliver them to Joseph Smith. The reason why no one (to my knowledge) really believes this is what happened is that Joseph claimed to have found the plates buried in a stone box in a hill near his home and that this was the place where Moroni had buried them. It would make no sense for Moroni to rebury the plates and other artifacts in a stone box in the ground, and it would even have been deceptive, making it appear as though that was where they had been buried for fourteen centuries. Moreover, Joseph’s own statement reported in the Elders’ Journal appears to rule out that explanation.

At the end of his commentary, Gardner admits, “There is no way to know how the plates arrived at Cumorah,”[12] meaning the place near Joseph’s home that Mormons traditionally have called Cumorah.

Sorenson’s Defense of the Trip’s Plausibility

Boylan’s main criticism in his blog post is that I failed to engage Sorenson’s argument for the plausibility of Moroni’s journey. As I have already emphasized, Sorenson’s argument was irrelevant to the point I was making in my book. My point was that there seems to have been no need for Moroni to have undertaken such a journey carrying such a heavy load, since Joseph did not even look at the plates while dictating the text of the Book of Mormon.

That having been said, Sorenson’s treatment of the matter is far from successful in defending the plausibility of Moroni making such a journey.

In 1589 three English sailors trekked 3,000 miles from Tampico, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, to Nova Scotia, more or less the same length as the journey Moroni(2) would have made to reach New York. They had been put ashore in Mexico from their privateer ship and decided to try to reach northeastern North America in hope of being found by a ship from Europe that might put in there. The original party was as large as 100 but en route all but three stopped off to join Amerindian groups. Upon completing the nine-month trip, the three men happened upon a French ship in Nova Scotia that agreed to take them back to England. Years later, a royal inquiry in their home country elicited from the only survivor, one David Ingram, his account of the journey through dozens of American Indian “kingdoms.” Some of the story he told is laced with fantastic detail, but the basic facts remain plausible and in some ways confirmed.[13]

Sorenson’s source for this story is a 1979 article in American Heritage magazine by Charlton Ogburn. According to Ogburn, if Ingram’s story is true it was “perhaps the outstanding walk in human history.”[14] One should not pass over this statement lightly. Granted that such a journey might be accomplished, it would still be an extremely unusual, spectacular accomplishment. And yet Moroni says nothing whatsoever about it!

Ingram’s journey to Nova Scotia, if it happened, took place in a period of about twelve months in 1567-1568, reaching England in 1589, not nine months in 1589, as Sorenson mistakenly claimed.[15] One fact that Sorenson omits is that Ogburn is not sure that the journey actually happened, at least the way Ingram told it. Ogburn admits, “I am not so sure about anything involving Ingram. I seem to have been left in the midst of intractable, if fascinating, contradictions.”[16] One of those contradictions concerns the starting point of Ingram’s journey. Was it near Tampico in Mexico, as the story of Ingram’s fellow sailor Miles Phillips indicated, or was it on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico in western Florida, as Ingram’s own account stated? Putting the starting point of Ingram’s journey in western Florida would, as Ogburn observes, shorten the journey by some 1,200 miles and make it far more plausible. He concludes that Ingram’s account was deliberately falsified “to make Ingram’s walk more credible” as support for the cause of financing the search for a “northwest passage” across the American continent.[17] The “fantastic detail” that Sorenson admits to have been part of Ingram’s story appears alongside descriptions that were either inaccurate or common knowledge, making it difficult to corroborate that Ingram made the walk at all.[18] One historian, David B. Quinn, concluded that a French ship likely picked up Ingram along the Gulf of Mexico or perhaps the Atlantic coast of Florida or South Carolina, which would have cut the distance they walked by more than half.[19] Ogburn himself concludes, rather tentatively, that we should probably accept Ingram’s story, but its reliability on the question of the actual route taken seems far from settled. Nathan Probasco points out in his dissertation that “scholars have long doubted its reliability,” though he admits, “The walk was clearly possible, whether or not Ingram completed it.”[20] Probasco concludes, “He probably made the walk, but during his interrogation he also exaggerated and forgot details.”[21] Unfortunately, Probasco does not address the issue of where Ingram’s walk actually began.

One detail worth pointing out is that Ingram did not make his journey (whatever its actual course) alone. He started with a large group of men, most of whom dropped out along the way, and he arrived in Nova Scotia with two other English sailors. It would be much easier for three men to make such a long journey together than for one man alone. Three men would be much less likely to be attacked than one man. They could take turns keeping watch at night if necessary, work together in complementary ways by utilizing their differing skill sets, and provide encouragement and moral support to each other.

Finally, Sorenson’s example of the three sailors walking from southern Mexico to Nova Scotia completely ignores the difficulty of transporting the materials Moroni supposedly carried a similar distance. The issue is complicated by disagreement as to the composition of the plates. The lowest estimate of their weight according to Joseph’s handpicked witnesses was about 40 to 50 pounds. If they were pure or mostly gold, they would have weighed closer to 200 pounds. In addition to the plates themselves, Moroni would have been carrying the breastplate and the stone spectacles. We have even less information about these objects, but presumably these items weighed close to ten pounds. One assumes that Moroni would have carried other objects—perhaps a weapon, surely some personal items—and would have needed one or more sturdy packs in which to carry all of these things. Accepting the lowest estimate of the weight of the plates, Moroni’s total load would have weighed at least 50 or 60 pounds, likely more. Given the chronological information we have in the Book of Mormon (as discussed above), he would have been carrying this load when he was in his late 60s.

Appeals to supernatural help here are completely ad hoc and therefore out of order, since the Book of Mormon does not even mention the journey, let alone indicate any supernatural aid in carrying the plates and other items. With this in mind, I will offer some very brief answers to the crucial questions regarding this alleged journey of Moroni from Mexico to Manchester.

Is it possible? Yes.

Is it plausible? Not really.

Would there have been any point to it? No.

That last point was, as I have explained, the point I was making in the paragraph of my book that Boylan quoted out of context. Granting for the sake of argument that such an arduous trip might have been possible for Moroni, the fact remains that there was no need for him to make it. Joseph was not going to use the plates when producing the English text known as the Book of Mormon. The historical evidence also shows that Joseph did not use the stone spectacles, at least when dictating the translation to Oliver Cowdery.[22] Yet Joseph claimed, as we documented above, that Moroni had buried the plates and other artifacts in the hill near Joseph’s future home while Moroni was still a mortal, then appeared to him in the 1820s to reveal where Joseph would find them.

We are left, then, with the notion, for which there is no evidence within the Book of Mormon narrative, that Moroni as an old man made an extremely difficult journey of some three thousand miles on foot, carrying a load of likely 50 to 60 pounds or more, in order to bury the plates and other items in the ground near what would become Joseph Smith’s home. The purpose of this herculean journey was to provide Joseph with the plates as a prop assuring his family and supporters that they existed, though most of them would never see the plates and though Joseph did not actually look at the plates when producing his translation.

No, Mr. Boylan, that’s not credible.

NOTES


[1] Robert Boylan, “Resurrection vs. First Vision?” Scriptural Mormonism (blog), April 14, 2020.

[2] Robert Boylan, “Book of Mormon Central, ‘Joseph Smith’s First Vision,’” Scriptural Mormonism (blog), April 23, 2020.

[3] Robert Boylan, “Could Moroni Have Travelled from Modern-Day Mexico to New York?” Scriptural Mormonism (blog), April 5, 2020.

[4] See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Complete Bibliography,” at Academia.edu.

[5] Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (Tampa, FL: DeWard, 2020), 281–82.

[6] John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2013), 693.

[7] See H. Donl Peterson, “Moroni, the Last of the Nephite Prophets,” in Fourth Nephi, From Zion to Destruction, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1995), 235–49. This itinerary is mentioned as a serious possibility by Michael R. Ash, “Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: How Moroni and the plates may have made it to Hill Cumorah,” Deseret News, Feb. 28, 2011 (originally in Mormon Times).

[8] See, e.g., the website BookofMormonEvidence.org.

[9] Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Volume 6: Fourth Nephi–Moroni (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 334.

[10] Gardner, Second Witness, 6:110. Ash, “Challenging Issues,” echoes Gardner’s statement here in almost the same words, without mentioning Gardner, as one possible explanation.

[11] Joseph Smith, “Answers to Questions,” Elders’ Journal 1 (July 1838): 42–43.

[12] Gardner, Second Witness, 6:422, emphasis added. Ash, “Challenging Issues,” is equally noncommittal, saying that “we may never know if Moroni buried the plates during his mortal ministry or as an angel.”

[13] Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 693–94; see also John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Foreword by Leonard J. Arrington, Truman G. Madsen, and John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret; Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985), 45.

[14] Charlton Ogburn, “The Longest Walk: David Ingram’s Amazing Journey,” American Heritage 30.3 (April/May 1979): 4–13.

[15] See Nathan J. Probasco, “Researching North America: Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583 Expedition and a Reexamination of Early Modern English Colonization in the North Atlantic World,” PhD diss. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2013), 126–27.

[16] Ogburn, “Longest Walk,” 1 (page numbers cited here for this article refer to web pages, not the printed magazine).

[17] Ogburn, “Longest Walk,” 3–4.

[18] Ogburn, “Longest Walk,” 2–3.

[19] Ogburn, “Longest Walk,” 4.

[20] Probasco, “Researching North America,” 132–33.

[21] Probasco, “Researching North America,” 134 (see 126–37).

[22] Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 270–75.

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