My article on Dec. 6 listed five common arguments of those who propose a Great Lakes theory for Book of Mormon geography.
This column will address the second claim: “The Cumorah of the Book of Mormon is the same hill in New York from which Joseph retrieved the plates.”
This claim is problematic on several levels.
The hill known as “Cumorah” by the Nephites was known by the Jaredites as the hill “Ramah” (Ether 15:11). Around the time that the Lehites were leaving Jerusalem, the Jaredites were fighting their final battle in the vicinity of the hill Ramah. Approximately a thousand years later, the Lamanites and Nephites were engaged in their own final battle at the same hill — now called “Cumorah.”
The Lord instructed the prophet Mormon to keep his record safe, so when the final battle began he buried all the plates, except the plates that were translated into the Book of Mormon, in the Hill Cumorah (Mormon 6:6). The plates that eventually ended up in Joseph’s hands were given to Mormon’s son Moroni, who later added his own comments and a translation of the Book of Ether. To reiterate, we are specifically told by Mormon that the Book of Mormon plates were not included with those plates buried at Cumorah.
Why, then, do we call the hill in New York “Cumorah”? As far as we currently know, Joseph never specifically referred to the drumlin hill in New York as Cumorah (at least not in any first-hand written record). The closest we come to such a designation is an 1842 Times and Seasons letter (that later became Doctrine and Covenants 128) which reads in part, “Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfillment of the prophets — the book to be revealed.”
As Maxwell Institute scholar Matthew Roper explains, “Mormon says he wrote and compiled the record at the Hill Cumorah before the battle (Mormon 6:6). The Book of Mormon contains the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the ‘glad tidings’ of the Restoration, so the Book of Mormon is indeed glad tidings from Cumorah, whether that hill was actually in New York or somewhere else.”
Even as late as 1838 when Joseph published his official history ("Joseph Smith History"), he did not refer to the hill as Cumorah but simply as “a hill of considerable size” (1:51). The earliest references we find to the hill being called Cumorah appear to come from Orson and Parely Pratt as well as Oliver Cowdery.
It’s obvious that the early Saints believed in a hemispheric geography; that is, they believed that the Nephites and Lamanites lived from South America to North America (see my previous article about why such an assumption isn’t feasible). It’s certainly possible that Joseph accepted the early LDS designation of the New York hill as Cumorah, but the fact that he never called it Cumorah suggests that he never received a revelation on the issue.
In accordance with their geographical theories, the early Saints typically believed that Moroni buried the final record in the same hill in which his father Mormon had buried the rest of the plates. In 1866, Orson Pratt suggested that Moroni was “inspired to select a department of the hill separate from the great sacred depository of the numerous volumes hid up by his father.”
It’s possible that Pratt’s assumptions were based on rumors that Joseph and Oliver were allowed to enter a cave in the Hill Cumorah where they saw stacks of plates and the Sword of Laban. All tales of this cave are secondhand and late; the earliest known account dates to 1855 — five years after Oliver’s death and 11 years after Joseph’s martyrdom. We have no first-hand record of this cave encounter, so we don’t know if the stories had any basis in fact or were garbled from an actual event.
As noted on the FAIR Wiki, the New York “Hill Cumorah” is a "drumlin": “a pile of gravel scraped together by an ancient glacier.” It’s not reasonable to assume that it would contain a cave. Dr. Michael Dorais of the geology department at BYU explains that “Cumorah” was formed tens of thousands of years ago and “is one of 10,000 similar hills of west-central New York that compose one of the largest drumlin fields in the world.” Dorias notes, however, that such a hill would “have allowed efficient water drainage that could have been important in the preservation of the (Book of Mormon) plates ... ”
While the archaeology around the “Hill Cumorah” presents additional problems (to be addressed in the future), for this issue it is sufficient to understand that neither the name of the New York hill — as assigned by the early Saints — nor the rumor that more plates lay in the hill can be counted as unique evidence in favor of a Great Lakes geography.