Conversion of a Diehard
Carl Johnson had a problem. He had finished reading Chris’ journal--several times over in fact--and he was convinced that Chris’ story was true. Try as he might, he hadn’t been able to find a flaw in what Chris had told him or in the things he had written. He remembered a statement made by the prophet Joseph Smith to the effect that “if a man could look into heaven for five minutes he would know more than all the books that had ever been written on the subject.” If Chris had really looked into Mormon’s record cave, and he could find no reason to disbelieve him now, then he knew more about Book of Mormon geography than all the learned scholars who had studied and written on the subject--himself included. He didn’t know whether to just ignore the issue and try and salvage his reputation, or whether he should publicly acknowledge his error and go forward with what he was now beginning to understand. He had worked so hard on his research and had been so convinced it was right. Could he just let it all go? Then he remembered Eric Thompson.
Thompson had been one of the preeminent archaeologists of his day--the authority on Mayan archaeology. He was widely respected and often deferred to. But then someone suggested that the Olmec civilization was older than the Maya. This contradicted Thompson’s beliefs, his teachings, and his writings. He had vigorously opposed the new information. His opposition, coupled with his influence and reputation, had impeded the study of the Olmec for many years. Later, finally faced with irrefutable evidence, he was forced to acknowledge his error and recant.
No, he didn’t want to be the “Mormon” Erik Thompson. He was enough of a true scholar that the advancement of knowledge was more important to him than simply being right--than salvaging his ego. No matter what it cost, he had to accept the truth.
The next day he called Chris and asked him to come to his office for an interview. Chris thought it had something to do with his joining the church. The missionaries had set a baptismal date for him and Concha. But when he arrived at Pres. Johnson’s office, he was surprised when the president didn’t even mention the baptism. He only wanted to talk about his journal and the experiences he had with John in searching for the record repository. Finally he got around to the real reason.
“I find it very difficult to admit that I have been wrong all these years” he began “but it is the right thing to do. And I must apologize for the way I treated you the first time we met. I thought you were only a lowly grave robber and hardily even worth my contempt. I suspected that you had ulterior motives and that you were trying to deceive the missionaries. But now I see how wrong I was. You were right, and I was wrong. I hope you’ll accept my sincere apology?”
Chris assured him that there had been no offense and he held no ill feelings.
Johnson continued, “It is very hard for me to do this--to admit that my whole life’s work has been wrong, and in a sense wasted. I was certain that I had been right, but now I can see that I was extremely biased and wouldn’t even consider the possibility that my theories might not have been correct.”
“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself president,” countered Chris. “I have read many of your books and was impressed with your knowledge and all the profound insights that you have into Book of Mormon history and archaeology. You weren’t really wrong so much as misplaced.”
“Well, I appreciate your charity. It is kind of you to say that,” responded Johnson. “When I look at it logically, however, I can see all kinds of problems with my theory. There were always problems with it. Like you have pointed out, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is much to wide, and it created problems with the directions. I had to look for a justification of it being east and west instead of northward and southward. What really deceived me–deceived us all–were the ruins. It just seemed like that’s where it should be. After all, the Nephites were an advanced civilization and they had writing, but I shouldn’t have let that overshadow the basics of the geography. Like John McClellan told me a long time ago, we were looking beyond the mark.”
“Yes, I think the Mayan ruins are so impressive that we are all easily distracted by them,” commented Chris in an attempt to commiserate with Johnson.
“While you’re here, Chris, I would like to ask you some questions about the geography. It wasn’t completely clear in your journal. Is that all right? Do you have the time?”
“Of course! What do you want to know?”
Johnson: “Well could you help me locate some of the specific locations on the map of lower Central America I have here?”
Chris: “Well, if I could see it, I could pinpoint it exactly, but I’ll just have to give you a verbal description and you can follow me on your map. Do you want to ask about specific locations, or should I just start at one end and go to the other?”
“Just start at the south with the Land of Nephi and go north.”
“OK. John felt that Lehi’s party landed at the mouth of the Rio Grande de Terraba in southwest Costa Rica, near the town of Palomar Sur. Up river about fourteen miles there is an archaeological site named Curre dating to the time of Lehi’s arrival, so we decided that it must have been their first permanent settlement. Later the Lamanites and Nephites split and Nephi took his followers eastward “for many days” according to the account. There he established a city that was called Nephi. John identified the archaeological site of Barriles, near Volcan in Panama, as the site of this city. The Waters of Mormon, which were close to Nephi, are three miles east of Barriles, at Las Lagunas, near Volcan.”
“Do you have any pictures of Las Lagunas?” wondered Carl. “I would like to see the lakes.”
“I think I might. I haven’t done anything with the pictures since my accident. I’ll have to check and see.”
“In relation to Nephi, where are Helam and the Valley of Alma located?”
Chris: “We located them on the Caribbean side of the mountains. There’s an old series of trails that cross the cordillera north of Volcan and go over to the Talamanca Valley that John felt was Helam. Then ten miles north, over the east trending ridges, is the Estrella Valley that he identified as the Valley of Alma. About 20 miles north of that valley is the city of Moroni. It’s right on the seashore where the city of Limon is located today. Twenty miles west of Limon is the village of Matina where John felt the city of Nephihah would have been located.”
“Are there any ruins located at any of those last four sites?” wondered Carl.
“There could be. We didn’t really check them that closely because they weren’t crucial to the geography. We just placed them spatially according to where they should have been located according to John’s criteria, and then checked to see if they met the criteria. But the next one, Zarahemla, we did check carefully because it is central to the geography.”
“We located Zarahemla just east of the present city of Turrialba in Costa Rica. On the east side of the Turrialba valley, there is an elevated bench where the archaeological site of Azul is located. It has been largely destroyed by farms which cover the site, but is located correctly in relation to the other nearby cities and geographical features, and it is dated archaeologically to the right time period. The Reventazon River runs by it to the east and we identified that river as the River Sidon of the Book of Mormon. To the south is the valley of Gideon and the town of Gideon would have been somewhere near the modern town of La Suiza. Fifteen miles southwest, at the headwaters of the Reventazon, or Sidon River, is the modern town of Orosi that would have been the location of the city of Manti. Right south of Orosi is the Talamanca Mountain front that runs east and west from sea to sea and forms the southern side of the Central Valley of Costa Rica. This would have been the ‘narrow strip of wilderness’ that separated the Land of Nephi, to the south, from the Land of Zarahemla, to the north.”
“Tell me a little bit about the Reventazon River” interrupted Carl. “It doesn’t seem like it would be big enough.”
Chris: “It’s one of the largest rivers in Costa Rica. It also has a very steep gradient that makes it more powerful. But I’m not sure the Sidon River should have been very big. It had to be large enough to carry off the dead bodies of the Lamanites, but at the same time it could be forded on foot. There was even a major battle where the Lamanites were encircled in the river. It couldn’t have been too big and powerful and I’m sure they weren’t in boats at the time. Actually, there is no mention in the Book of Mormon of boat travel on the Sidon.”
Carl: “So where was the Land of Bountiful in relation to these sites?”
Chris: “Well there are a series of volcanoes cutting diagonally across Costa Rica. These divide the Land of Zarahemla, to the south, from the Land of Bountiful, to the north. We were never completely sure of the sites of the cities from Moroni up to Bountiful. It is one of the regions with the most archaeological evidence. There are many big and important sites, many of them were found only by accident when a railroad line was put in to develop the banana plantations. According to the criteria, these sites should be closer to the sea. However there is evidence that the landmass has been gradually rising over the years, and as a result the coastline has been moving seaward. If this is correct, the old coastal sites would be more distant from the shore at the present time.”
“There is an archaeological site named Cutris near the modern city of Quesada which has the mound and moat fortifications typical of Book of Mormon cities at the time of Captain Moroni. However here again it is farther from the seashore than it should be. John did some studies on this and found that the sediments in the San Juan River basin are fairly recent. There has been a lot of volcanic activity within the last 2000 years accompanied by heavy volcanic ash deposits that could have filled in the whole basin. In other words, it could have been a bay at that time instead of the river basin that it is at present.”
Carl: “It seems like I remember him saying he was going to do some aerial surveys over that area. Did he ever complete them?”
Chris: “Yes, in fact he contracted with BYU who had a plane equipped to do such surveys. We found several sites with the circular fortifications like those built by Captain Moroni.”
Carl: “From your journals I understand that the Isthmus of Rivas is what you consider to be the ‘narrow neck of land’, is that right?”
Chris: “Yes, it is.”
Carl: “Have you identified the feature called the ‘narrow pass’?”
Chris: “Yes we have. It’s a section along the ancient trading route going up the western side of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Right at the border between the two countries the Sapoa River valley narrows to no more than a mile wide. The coastal mountains close in, narrowing the valley on both sides, and the mountains almost extend down to the shore of Lake Nicaragua. As a result the traveler is funneled through this narrow valley and the adjacent lakeshore. The only way to avoid going through this narrow region would be to climb up over the mountains which would be much more difficult. It would have been relatively easy to defend this section of the trail. The city of Desolation was located about four miles up the Sapoa River at the narrowest point of the valley, at the southern end of the narrow pass. There is an ancient archaeological site at this place named San Dimas.”
Carl: “Then I suppose the area from the Costa Rican border past the city of Rivas to Managua would have been the Land of Desolation, is that right?”
Chris: “Yes, and it may have extended clear up to the Gulf of Fonseca. It’s hard to determine because there has been so little archaeological work done in Nicaragua. There are some sites that have been investigated but the dating is rather late. Then there are the famous statues that were discovered by Ephriam Squier, the adventurous American ambassador to Nicaragua, back in the 1850s that seem to me to be primitive Olmec in design. But with the limited knowledge of Nicaragua, it was difficult to identify too many places.”
Carl: “So tell me how you located the Hill Cumorah?”
Chris: “The general area was not too hard to locate. John had compiled a list of criteria for the Hill Cumorah, so we just started investigating mountains or hills along the Caribbean coast north of the ‘narrow neck’ that matched the criteria. We had earlier visited your suggested site of Cerro Vijia and had ruled it out as not meeting the criteria. There was ultimately only one mountain which matched the criteria, and it matched them perfectly.”
Carl: “And that was Cerro San Gil in Guatemala?”
Chris: “Yes, and from there on it wasn’t difficult at all.”
Carl: “I don’t suppose you want to talk about where on the mountain the cave is located?”
Chris: “No, this is about as much as I want to talk about. I don’t want to get into specifics about the cave.”
Carl: “I understand completely. I won’t push you on it. And I appreciate the information that you have given me. As soon as I am released from my assignment as mission president, I plan on visiting all these sites you have told me about. I can hardily wait! I was also wondering if you would be willing to collaborate on a new book on the Book of Mormon geography with me? My name still carries a lot of weight in the field and I think it would be well receive by most people.”
Chris: “Certainly! I would be happy to. That would open some new doors for me.”
Carl: “It’s even possible that I can arrange a position for you at BYU--perhaps a teaching assistant or something along those lines. I think your personal experiences would be invaluable.”
With that they parted. Carl, feeling lightened of a burden, and Chris feeling an enthusiasm he hadn’t experienced in a long time.