Monday, January 16, 2017

A New York Cumorah? Not a Hill We Have to Die On

    In 1990, anti-Mormons began to circulate copies of a letter purportedly written by F. Michael Watson, Secretary to the First Presidency to a Bishop Darrell L. Brooks in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, dated October 16, 1990. In his letter, Watson noted that a member of Brooks’ ward had “inquired about the location of the Hill Cumorah mentioned in the Book of Mormon, where the last battle between the Nephites and Lamanites took place.”He then wrote, “The Church has long maintained, as attested to by the references in the writings of General Authorities, that the Hill Cumorah in western New York state is the same as referenced in the Book of Mormon” (F. Michael Watson to Darrell L. Brooks, 16 October, 1990).

    In 1993, while I was a student at BYU, I was also a part-time employee at the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). Part of my responsibilities then included responding to frequently asked questions about the Book of Mormon which we often received. I was frequently at the office and remember when Brent Hall showed me a FAX from Michael Watson, then Secretary to the First Presidency. Brent allowed me to make a copy of it, which we found very helpful at the time in responding to questions about the 1990 letter, which anti-Mormons at Utah Mission in Marlow Oklahoma and Watchman Fellowship in Texas were then giving wide circulation. This was shared with me and others at the time, including some who had written to FARMS with questions. Additionally, Professor William Hamblin had also written directly to Michael Watson and received a copy of the same FAX from the Office of the First Presidency as well which he cited in an article published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies in 1993.

    Some writers have claimed without basis that the FAX was either a fabrication or was sent by a Church employee in Salt Lake City without the knowledge or support of the First Presidency or Michael Watson. These claims are baseless. The following is a copy of a two page document which I retain in my personal files. The first page is a cover memo written and signed by Brent Hall who was the office manager at FARMS during this time. The second page is the FAX in question. The cover memo or first page reads:

I thought you would be interested in this FAX from Michael Watson, secretary to the First Presidency. We have been receiving a number of questions from the Oklahoma, Texas area where anti-Mormons are using a letter from Brother Watson to a Bishop where Brother Watson said that the Church supports only one location for Cumorah, and that is the New York location. I talked with him on the phone the other day and told him of the questions that were coming to us. He responded that the First Presidency would like to clear up that issue and he would FAX me with the clarification.

The second page, the FAX itself is dated April 23, 1993 and was sent by Carla Ogden (presumably secretary working in the office) to Brent Hall at FARMS. It reads:

The Church emphasizes the doctrinal and historical value of the Book of Mormon, not its geography. While some latter-day Saints have looked for possible locations and explanations because the New York Hill Cumorah does not readily fit the Book of Mormon description of Cumorah, there are no conclusive connections between the Book of Mormon text and any specific site that has been suggested.

As indicated in this memo:

1) Brent Hall spoke directly with Michael Watson and discussed the questions that were being generated by his previous 1990 letter.

2) Watson informed Hall that the First Presidency wanted to clear up the misunderstanding (that the Church considered the location of the final battlefield in New York a matter of revelation and doctrinal importance) and that the forthcoming FAX was intended to address that misunderstanding.

3) The FAX itself, when the context is understood, constitutes a correction of the 1990 Watson letter as well as a clarification of the Church position on the subject. It is consistent with earlier statements by Church leaders that the question of the location of the final battlefield of the Jaredites and Nephites at Cumorah, as with other points of Book of Mormon geography, should not be considered a matter that has been settled by revelation, is not a standard of doctrinal orthodoxy, but remains an open question for careful students of the Book of Mormon.

[For details see my discussion “The Church and Book of Mormon Geography”]