Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Mother of All Battles

What was the largest military campaign ever fought in New York State? In terms of casualties, surely it was the Battle of Cumorah, in 385 CE, near what is now Palmyra, NY, when the Nephite nation made their last stand against the Lamanites, who annihilated the Nephite forces, slaying all but 24 of the Nephite 230,000 men in arms. The Lamanites slowly rounded up the remaining Nephites, except for the commander in chief of the Nephites, Moroni, who spent many years on the run, until in 421 CE, he returned to a hill on the battlefield of Cumorah, where he buried a history of his people on gold tablets.

There they remained until their discovery in the late 1820s, by Joseph Smith, who translated the tablets from their original “reformed Egyptian” and published the results in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.

There are, however, two problems to the Battle of Cumorah assuming its rightful place in New York military history. First, you have to accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon, something that few persons do who aren’t members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. (Let’s be honest, there is absolutely no one outside of the Mormon church who accepts it as factual.)

And then there’s the other problem, Mormons who do accept the Book of Mormon as a factual record generally do not locate the Battle of Cumorah in New York State in New York State, but somewhere in Central America. This is because by unanimous archeological consensus, New York in the Middle Woodland period around the 5thh century CE had nothing of the advanced economy and complex urban structures described in the Book of Mormon and the only somewhat plausible place to locate the events of the Book of Mormon in the Americas and without discarding the chronology would be in the world of the Olmecs and the early Maya.

But this creates the additional problem of explaining of how the tablets made their way from Guatemala to western New York, as well as the difficulty, that, as far as I understand the history of this, Joseph Smith and the early members of the Mormon church believed that Hill Cumorah, near Palmyra, NY, where Smith claimed to find the gold tablets, was the site of the climactic battle between the Lamanites and the Nephites. I don’t know, it seems to me inventing two Hill Cumorahs to get out of this archeological difficulty sort of strains credulity.

These reflections are prompted by reading Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, an excellent biography of Joseph Smith, who is a person whose life story is, I must confess, of unending fascination to me. While it is generally the policy of the Greater New York blog to avoid commenting on sectarian religious matters, I think locating the events of the Book of Mormon in Central America is a mistake. First, a Central American setting is no more convincing than one in New York, and despite a century of assiduous Mesoamerican archeological digging, they Mormons have been unable to turn up any archeological evidence that early Mormon history unfolded there, and they might as well stop trying. They will not convince anyone not already an LDS member.

And second, this neglects what is most valuable about the Book of Mormon (at least to a gentile like myself) that the book is a sacred myth of early American and early New York history. The Book of Mormon is a violent book, its pages filled with warfare and combat, apostasy and assassination, revolution and murder, the persecution of the righteous, errands to the wilderness gone bad. This is the history of the early United States and New York, of a homeland carved out of fights with the Indians and the British. As the model for the Book of Mormon, the Hebrew Bible, showed, the creation of a new nation is a messy business, the displacement of one people and the travails of their supplanters. When Smith wrote the Book of Mormon in the late 1820s, there had three wars fought in New York the previous 75 years (the French and Indian War, the War for Independence, the War of 1812.) There had been, in western New York, mass expulsions of the Indians, and the exodus of the loyalists. This is the world of the Book of Mormon, with a dark vision of America perhaps similar in some ways to the other great New York State writer of the period, James Fennimore Cooper. Like Cooper, the Book of Mormon doesn’t so much critique its subject as exhibit in all of its contradictions. Nation building, as we have learned again in recent years, is complicated and nasty, and the divine will and the course of history is not always easy to discern.

Whenever I visit a famous military site, like Gettysburg or the Plains of Abraham, I am always struck by the incongruity between their pastoral peacefulness and the reason for their historical significance. When Joseph Smith looked at Palmyra, Rochester and other places in western New York in the 1820s, he did not see placid farmland and canal towns. He saw a battlefield.


Anonymous said...

I think the most valuable observation in the piece is that nobody outside of the Mormon church believes the Book of Mormon to be a factual history. I've studied Mormonism and am most intriqued by the fact that those inside the church are so sold out to this obvious myth. They call it faith. I call it a desire to believe.

Anonymous said...

It has been my experience that those who are the most critical of the Book of Mormon are those who have never read it. It would be like me saying I think BMWs are a piece of junk having never driven or owned one. The book does reveal much about South America long before archaeologists had much of an interest there. How would Joseph Smith have known so much about historical events and sites in South America? Smith was not an educated man. The events mentioned in the book concerning Jerusalem also seem to be accurate to the period of 600 B.C. It is so convenient for someone to call something a myth when they have little or no understanding of it.