Recently, I was asked, if Joseph Smith really did create the Book of Mormon, how on earth did he come up with a story of ancient civilizations who came across the sea from Jerusalem?
The answer isn’t that difficult, and it has a lot of explanatory power. The Book of Mormon emerges from the mound-builder mythology of the early 1800s. Earthen mounds had been discovered in parts of the United States, which seemed to originate with a sophisticated ancient civilization. White Americans did not believe that Native Americans were capable of such sophistication, so legends began to emerge of a white, advanced civilization that had existed anciently in the Americas, but eventually the savage Indians had destroyed them. Ethan Smith’s “View of the Hebrews” and Spaulding’s manuscript are different takes on this legend, Smith suggesting that the lost civilization was founded by Hebrews, and Spaulding’s tale describing shipwrecked Romans.
In the Finger Lakes region of New York where Joseph Smith grew up are a number of glacial drumlins, which are elongated hills formed by glacial movements. The following image from the US Geological Survey shows drumlins in Wayne County, New York, which are oriented northwest to southeast. Note that Palmyra is located in Wayne County.
In Joseph Smith’s time, these glacial drumlins were believed to have been burial and other “mounds” built by the ancient mound builders. Thus, Joseph Smith in 1841 published articles describing the mound builders (based on Josiah Priest’s work) as supporting the Book of Mormon.
If anything, Joseph Smith taught a hemispheric model, as the Doctrine and Covenants repeatedly refers to western Indian territory as the lands of the Lamanites. But the idea that Cumorah was not in New York does not originate with Joseph, either through revelation or personal opinion. On the contrary, Doctrine and Covenants 128:20 associates Cumorah with the revelation of the Book of Mormon; the verse makes no sense if Cumorah is in Guatemala.
So, then, what are the reasons for shifting Cumorah to Central America?
Mesoamerican civilizations provide the large populations and advanced cities that the Book of Mormon describes. New York-area Native Americans do not fit the model, as they were still largely hunter-gatherer societies, although some “mound builder” societies did show more advanced development.
It would be easy to describe why Mesoamerica is not a good fit, as their technologies, culture, religion, and history are a very poor match for Nephites and Lamanites. See, for example, Mormon Mesoamerica for a discussion of the problems. Mound-builder myths are a much better fit for the Book of Mormon than are Mesoamerican theories (see Book of Mormon Evidence for more).