Thursday, October 27, 2016

Mesomania and CES (Church Educational System)

The Church Educational System (CES) is awesome.

Five years ago, a report indicated that CES educates around 700,000 people in 152 countries. Those numbers have surely grown since then. There are more than 50,000 instructors educating people through Seminary and Institute. The new Global Education Initiative is one of the coolest developments imaginable, in terms of helping the Saints develop their talents. There's a nice report on that here. The Church web page explains CES here. There's a nice overview here

But there is a lingering problem of Mesomania in the CES program that I hope can be rectified soon--and quickly.

Mesomania has produced the exact results that Joseph Fielding Smith warned about: i.e., members are confused and disturbed in their faith of the Book of Mormon when they are told the Hill Cumorah is not in New York, that Joseph and Oliver were speculating and confused and wrong, etc.

People ask why so many CES people nevertheless adhere to the Mesoamerican theory. In many cases, CES educators become angry and defensive when challenged about that theory. I get reports about this all the time. (Of course, many CES educators reject the Mesoamerican theory, but they only reveal this privately or after retirement.)

At the risk of generalizing, in my experience the reason CES educators act this way is that they were taught that theory and have simply stuck with it out of a combination of these factors:

- respect for their own teachers at BYU/CES. 

Most CES employees, as well as most of the volunteer instructors, have been educated at one of the BYU campuses or at least have gone through seminary and/or Institute. For decades, people teaching at BYU/CES have promoted the Mesoamerican theory because of all the factors that led to Mesomania in the first place, as I've discussed elsewhere. It's natural for students to adopt the beliefs of their teachers, particularly in a Church setting.

- perception that the Church endorses the Mesoamerican setting

Officially the Church is neutral on Book of Mormon geography questions (although I'm not sure where this is actually stated as official Church policy, since so many Church leaders have specifically stated that the Book of Mormon (Mormon 6:6) Cumorah is in New York). However, the Church promotes the Mesoamerican theory by making the Arnold Friberg paintings ubiquitous (even including them in missionary editions of the Book of Mormon) and by using exclusively Mesoamerican depictions in media and artwork. Members understandably conclude that the Church's actual position is neutrality about where in Mesoamerica the Book of Mormon took place. Which is a false conclusion, of course, but realistically, what else are members supposed to think? After all, the Mesoamerican theory has been presented in the Ensign, while Letter VII has been completely suppressed.

- influence of LDS scholarly publications.

The Maxwell Institute, BYU Studies, FairMormon, the old FARMS (and its current intellectual descendant The Interpreter) and, of course, Book of Mormon Central and its affiliates, all adhere rigidly to the Mesoamerican theory. They collude to suppress information about other possibilities, and in many cases vigorously attack such alternatives. To promote their two-Cumorahs theory, they have (with one exception) also colluded to suppress information about Letter VII. They teach that Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Joseph Fielding Smith, Marion G. Romney, Mark E. Peterson, and others, were confused or ignorant or speculating about the Hill Cumorah being in New York--and that all these men were wrong. Consequently, CES educators feel compelled to go along with the LDS scholarly community in this area. (Yes, I realize that it is ironic that CES educators side with the scholars instead of the Church leaders on this point, but we all know that's the case.) 

- adherence to tradition.

It's natural for people to stick with tradition, particularly when it seems that Church leaders have embraced the tradition. Why rock the boat? One example is the false assumption that Joseph Smith wrote the anonymous articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons that directly linked the Book of Mormon to Quirigua in Guatemala, or that he wrote about this in his journal. In fact, in the Wentworth letter, Joseph specifically repudiated the hemispheric model, including the Mesoamerican model, but the scholars don't mention this. Every one of Joseph's contemporaries agreed that the Hill Cumorah was in New York. It wasn't until they all died off, and RLDS scholars began questioning the Book of Mormon in the 1920s, that the two Cumorahs theory started. LDS scholars embraced it over the objection of Joseph Fielding Smith, and the Mesoamerican tradition has become the de facto position that everyone is supposed to accept.

I've been told that CES is downplaying the Mesoamerican stuff by removing the Mesoamerican artwork and other references, and that might help a little bit in another generation or two. 

But realistically, it's not enough to offset the continued efforts of LDS scholars to promote Mesomania. Book of Mormon Central alone is spending over $1 million a year to aggressively promote the Mesoamerican theory to the youth of the Church through social media. The LDS scholarly community retains its influence over CES educators because they are the ones teaching the CES educators. 

And then the 50,000+ CES educators are perpetuating Mesomania in conjunction with the staff at the other departments of the Church, including the media, scripture, and curriculum committees, as I've shown many times.

All of this is causing members to become confused and disturbed in their faith--at least, those members who inquire or are confronted by detractors in person or on the Internet. 

Which is most members.

From my perspective, short of another official endorsement of Letter VII from Church leaders,* the only way to eliminate Mesomania is for the director of CES to explicitly address this issue.

I stipulate that the message of the Book of Mormon is far more important than the geography. But if the geography doesn't matter, why do Mormon and Moroni refer to it? Pretending these verses don't matter doesn't resolve anything.

It would be very helpful to have the CES director do one or more of the following:

1. Announce a position of actual neutrality; i.e., declare as a matter of policy that there is no CES (or Church) position on Book of Mormon geography, and any CES instructor who says otherwise is violating policy.

2. Include Letter VII in CES materials, along with the statements of Joseph Fielding Smith and others.

3. Give students an overview of the basic issues involving Book of Mormon geography so they're not blindsided by detractors. 


I think it would be cool to engage students in an effort to work out the geography issue. I think it should be part of the curriculum. Tell the students to put Cumorah in New York and then see if they can figure out the rest. This would engage them in the text in a meaningful way and would generate some thought-provoking discussions. Maybe it would lead to a consensus (I think it would, for sure), but even if not, at least people would become knowledgeable about the topic.

Regarding point 3, It's unbelievable to me that full-time missionaries are not prepared this way, let alone that Church leaders at all levels are not. For that matter, it's unbelievable that every member of the Church is not prepared this way, because it is one of the first questions that arise in the mind of every person who reads the Book of Mormon; i.e., where did this happen? 

The answer we always hear--"somewhere in the Western Hemisphere"--is completely unsatisfactory, and everyone knows it. Fortunately, the spiritual power of the Book of Mormon can outweigh the confusion and doubt that this lame answer generates, but only for a very small fraction of the people who read the Book of Mormon. 

Which should be obvious by now. 

More than 150 million copies of the Book of Mormon have been printed, in 110 languages. On top of that, there are libraries. And online versions. And digital versions, which is what most people use now anyway. True, many LDS families own multiple copies. I've got several editions sitting right here on my desk. But there's no question that the great majority of people who have looked at the Book of Mormon, or opened its pages, have not accepted it. 

There are as many reasons for this as there are individuals, but surely one of the most common reasons for not taking the Book of Mormon seriously is the inability or refusal to say where the events took place. Even if we don't know all the details, we know one thing. From the outset, one thing was clear: the Hill Cumorah was in New York. Oliver Cowdery taught this on his first missionary journey in 1830. With that pin in the map, we can work out the rest, but LDS scholars refuse to accept even that pin in the map. Worse, they say Oliver was wrong!

So let's get this one thing straight and educate at least the members of the Church enrolled in CES programs. 

The scholars can continue to debate this forever, but that's no reason to leave members of the Church flailing around in the confusion that inevitably arises when they're told that the Hill Cumorah is not in New York.


* Letter VII has already been officially endorsed multiple times. It was published in the Messenger and Advocate in Kirtland. It was published in the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo. With Joseph Smith's express approval, it was published in the Gospel Reflector in Philadelphia. It was published in a special pamphlet in England in 1844. With Joseph F. Smith as editor, it was published in the Improvement Era in Salt Lake City. It was cited by Joseph Fielding Smith in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, when he was President of the Quorum of the Twelve. Today you can read it in the Joseph Smith Papers from Joseph Smith's own personal history. Apart from his contributions to the canonized scriptures (which include portions of Letter I in the Pearl of Great Price), Letter VII and his other letters on Church history are the most frequently republished writings of Oliver Cowdery. None of this is enough for current LDS scholars and educators, though.  


  1. Letter VII is not good enough for me either. Sorry, but no cigar. You should consider at least reading what Del has to say about Letter VII, if you have not:

    1. On the other hand, your concerns about Mesomania in the church are definitely justified. There are many many problems with the Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon, and I agree with you that it should not be pushed at the expense of other settings.

    2. Hi erichard. Thanks for your comment. I've discussed Del's observations before on the bookofmormonwars blog, but there are many new readers here, so I'll review it again.

      Basically, Del claims Oliver Cowdery was speculating, did not know what he was talking about, had no revelation, etc. Either that or he was a liar. None of these options are exactly ideal for one of the Three Witnesses. Let alone for the Assistant President of the Church and the only other witness to many of the most important foundational events of the Restoration.

      Letter VII speaks for itself. To say Oliver was speculating when he specifically wrote it was a fact makes him a liar; i.e., a fact is not speculation. To say Joseph was speculating when he had it reprinted and recorded in his own journal undermines everything else he taught. To say Joseph F. Smith was speculating when he reprinted it in the Improvement Era, or Joseph Fielding Smith was speculating both as Church Historian and a 20-year apostle, and then again 20 years later as President of the Quorum of the Twelve, is problematic. Not to mention claiming that President Marion G. Romney and Elder Mark E. Peterson were speculating in General Conference in the 1970s. So we have 140 years of a consistent position taken by the prophets and apostles, and Del and others object because of what?

      Purely to defend their pet geography theories.

      As I've always said, people are free to believe whatever they want. I've gone through Del's material and found them internally inconsistent, contradictory to what Joseph and Oliver said, and contradictory to the text. But I'm not arguing with him; I have no problem with him believing believe his theories. I have no problem with the Meso advocates believing their theories, either.

      All I ask is that people explain their views regarding Letter VII. It was ubiquitous in Joseph's day, and even made it into the official edition of the Book of Mormon from 1879 through 1920, where Cumorah was identified as a fact while other sites were clearly marked as speculative. Every Church member today should be familiar with Letter VII as a matter of Church history, if nothing else.

      FWIW, I find Letter VII consistent with the text, with everything else Joseph said, and with archaeology, anthropology, geology, and geography. Others don't, which is fine with me.

      Again, thanks for your comment and sorry to write so much but people ask me these things all the time so now I can refer them here.


      All the best.

  2. LOVE THIS ARTICLE!!!! It really lays it out there!! In your first paragraph you stated, "The Church web page explains CES here." However that link explained the church's position on education, but not on the "Church Education System." I LOVED how you recaped all the Letter VII references at the bottom of the page!! I was wondering if you could also expound on the references to where Joseph Fielding Smith cited the letter in the 1930's and 50's. Thank you very much!!

    1. That's a good idea. I'll put that in one of my next "how to" videos.


  3. Just getting around to reading this now (for some reason I had the settings for this particular blog wrong on my RSS reader). But like #littlerasco, I like your reasoning here. Kudo's.