James Talmage on Book of Mormon Geography

By James P. Harris

Elder James E. Talmage had a firm belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon account, yet the record shows that he was uncertain where the events described in the book took place. For instance, in his 1916 masterwork, Jesus the Christ, Elder Talmage appends the following note concerning where Christ is said to have visited the Book of Mormon peoples:

1. The Land Bountiful—This comprized [sic] the northerly part of South America, extending to the Isthmus of Panama. On the north it was bounded by the Land of Desolation, which embraced Central America, and, in later Nephite history, an indefinite extent north of the Isthmus. The South American continent in general is called, in the Book of Mormon, the Land of Nephi.

In this instance, Elder Talmage was clearly indicating a belief in a South American setting.

But, a year after the publication of Jesus the Christ, we find evidence of Elder Talmage beginning to entertain evidence for a North American setting. One lengthy journal entry, from 20 May 1917, recounts the findings of William C. Mills, a non-Mormon archaeologist, that clearly impressed him:

This evening . . . I had a long and profitable consultation with Professor Wm. C. Mills, State Archeologist of Ohio. He is continuing his splendid work of exploration in the Ohio mounds, and I went over with him again the remarkable agreement between his deductions and the Book of Mormon story. He has reached the following conclusions:

(1) The area now included within the political boundaries defining the State of Ohio was once inhabited by two distinct peoples, representing two cultures, a higher and a lower.

(2) These two classes were contemporaries; in other words, the higher and the lower culture represented distinct phases of development existing at one time and in contiguous sections, and furnish in no sense an instance of evolution by which the lower culture was developed into the higher.

(3) These two cultural types or distinct peoples were generally in a state of hostility one toward the other, the lower culture being more commonly the aggressor and the higher the defender.

(4) During limited periods, however, the two types, classes, or cultures, lived in a state of neutrality, amounting in fact to friendly intercourse.

(5) The numerous exhumations of human bones demonstrate that the people of the lower type, if not indeed both cultures, were very generally affected by syphilis, indicating a prevalent condition of lasciviousness.

(6) The two peoples or cultures above referred to were in general migratory throughout a considerable period; and, in this course of migration, the lower culture was most commonly the assailing party, while the people of the higher type defended as best they could but in general fled.

(7) In consequence of the condition last cited, the people of the higher culture built temporary rather than enduring abodes, and are to be regarded as transients rather than as permanent residents of the region.

(8) As a further consequence of this belligerent status they buried their dead, with or without previous cremation, in such condition as to admit of expeditious covering up of the cemeteries by the heaping of earth over the sepulchres [sic], in which hurried work the least skilled laborers and even children could be employed.

(9) From a careful collating of data it is demonstrated that the general course of migration through the area now defined as the State of Ohio was inward from the west and outward toward the east.

Professor Mills states that no definite data as to the age of these peoples have as yet been found, but that the mounds may date back a few hundred years or even fifteen hundred or more.

Several years ago I placed a Book of Mormon in the hands of Professor Mills and, while he is reticent as to the parallelism of his discoveries and the Book of Mormon account, he is impressed by the agreement.

Perhaps one can take as further evidence that Elder Talmage continued to lean toward a North American locus statements that he gave during a 1923 trip he made with other general authorities, including President Heber J. Grant, to Palmyra to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith and showing him where to find the golden plates. During that trip, Elder Talmage was interviewed by the Rochester Herald, with the interview published as “Mormonism’s Theologian Interviewed,” and subtitled, “Dr. James E. Talmage Gives the Herald Exclusive Statement Concerning Church Tenets and Ancient History of America.” According to the newspaper account, Elder Talmage “gave hasty verbal sketches of the times when the Nephites and Jaredites lived, fought, and departed in the country roundabout Palmyra.” It then records him as continuing:

There are still many great problems to solve in American history. One of them is the Book of Mormon and its relation to the ancient people of this land. I recall once after a lecture of mine at Cornell University that Dr. Moses Coit Tyler openly deplored the lack of serious inquiry into the Mormon revelation and its historical implications. I believe that yet there will be diligent and authentic investigation conducted. Certainly after a hundred years in which the Book of Mormon has stood so well, we do not fear such an investigation. Our story has never been varied; there have been no changes, no additions, no alterations. It stands exactly as Joseph Smith related it.