It has been more than half a century since the last big shift in thinking about Book of Mormon geography.
Judging from the commotion in the blogosphere and on rival theorists' Web sites, a dramatically different -- and disputed -- theory is gaining traction among some of the LDS faithful.
The theory, popularized by Rod Meldrum and Bruce H. Porter in the past three years, suggests that Book of Mormon events took place in the heartland of the United States, east of the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. They have popularized the idea at firesides and conferences, on tours of the Midwest and in DVD sets and books.
Next week, Meldrum, Porter and colleague Wayne May will conduct two conferences exploring the heartland model, which they believe answers the question that has enthralled generations of Mormons: Where did the historical events of The Book of Mormon take place?
Meldrum expects 300 to attend his conference Thursday and Friday at Zermatt Resort in Midway, just before the church's General Conference.
Porter says 600 already were signed up 10 days in advance for the conference sponsored by LDS Promised Land, a travel company, at SouthTowne Expo Center in Sandy. That conference also is Thursday and Friday.
The latter was promoted with an ad blitz, including blurbs by Mormon talk-show host Glenn Beck on the radio and the Internet.
"The word is out now. There is a movement going through the church," says Porter, a former LDS institute teacher who lives in Arizona and leads tours for LDS Travel, a company associated with LDS Promised Land.
"It just rings true to a lot of people," says Meldrum, a Provo businessman who quit his job to focus on research and promotion of the heartland model.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints long has held that God has not revealed Book of Mormon geography. The church has no official position on where, in the Americas, the civilizations of the Nephites and Jaredites lived and died out centuries ago.
For its first 100-plus years, most Mormons assumed the civilizations ranged over the entire Western Hemisphere, and that the "narrow neck" between "land north" and "land south" described in scripture was the isthmus of Panama.
But, in the 1950s, careful reading of the text led scholars to propose a more limited geography and since then, most of the dozens of theories have focused on "Mesoamerica," a region that includes southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and the northwestern part of Honduras and El Salvador in Central America.
Most LDS scholars still believe that region is more plausible because it fits the scriptural text and archaeological and anthropological evidence has been found through the years.
Meldrum and Porter come at the question from a different angle, and that's the source of the controversy.
They claim archaeological and DNA evidence for their model, but they start with what they say are 36 clear "prophecies and promises" in The Book of Mormon and statements by Joseph Smith, indicating he believed the history unfolded in what would become the United States.
For scholars to cling to a Mesoamerican model, Porter says, they must disregard what the church's founding prophet said.
"Most of the people fighting it are people who have something to lose financially or by reputation," Porter says. "I feel for them. ... How would it be when you've spent your life trying to prove The Book of Mormon location ... if someone came along and said you'd ignored the statements of Joseph Smith."
Not only does that assertion anger critics, who say it unfairly casts them as apostate, they argue it is flat wrong.
"They are trying to put us down when that's not at all what we believe," says Steve Carr, a retired pediatrician who is senior vice president for the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum.
That group sponsors an annual conference and its web site in recent months posted a series of articles refuting the claims of the heartland advocates.
Joseph Smith may have alluded to the United States as the home of the Nephites, but he also wrote near the end of his life, Carr says, that the history took place in Central America.
"He was just guessing like a lot of other people," Carr says. "A lot of things they take as revelation are just ideas, not revelation at all. "
Porter retorts: "He [Smith] either knew or he didn't know. If he didn't know, what was he doing?"
Porter and Meldrum believe the statements supporting Central America were written by Smith's colleagues rather than the prophet himself.
Michael Ash, who is on the management team of Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), argues the heartland advocates' methods undermine not only scholars, but also the church itself.
"Implicitly they're saying that Joseph Smith received the revelation ... and the leaders of the church are out of harmony with it," Ash says.
FAIR posted an extensive series of articles rebutting the heartland model on its Web site, triggering an ethernet shouting match with Meldrum in 2008 and 2009.
Meldrum and Porter say they are careful not to make claims counter to church teaching and to ensure it is presented as a theory, not fact.
Carr, at the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, says scholars and those who trust them are bothered by other aspects of the heartland model. "They are ignoring the archaeological and geologic aspects of The Book of Mormon," he says.
Mormon DNA experts say the latest DNA evidence cannot prove nor disprove The Book of Mormon, Carr says.
John E. Clark, an anthropologist at Brigham Young University, says he hasn't spent much time analyzing the heartland model because of such deficiencies.
"It doesn't fit the geography, the culture or the time period [described in scripture]," he says. "It has almost nothing going for it."
» To learn more about the heartland model of Book of Mormon geography and the upcoming conferences, go to:
» To learn more about critical reviews of the heartland model and the methods of its proponents, go to: