Who are the Heartlanders and why do they insist the Book of Mormon took place in U.S.?

Scholars point out that much of their evidence has been disproved.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Wayne May doesn’t wonder if the Book of Mormon city of Zarahemla is in Iowa. He knows it.

For decades, he has been piecing together what he’s convinced is an irrefutable case that the signature scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took place in the heartland of the United States. And increasingly, members in North America appear to be listening, drawn by what some argue is a Christian nationalist and even white nationalist reading of the text.

There’s a problem, though. Much of the so-called evidence May and his fellow advocates for this “Heartland model” of Book of Mormon geography cite has long been dismissed by scholars as flat wrong.

Rather than hide this fact, however, May wields it. Speaking to packed conference halls and Latter-day Saint chapels, he alludes constantly to a conspiracy by sophists in the ivory tower and — in some cases — the suits in Salt Lake City to obscure the truth that a once-great people of the eastern United States, known as the Hopewells were the warring clans whose bloody saga constitutes the majority of the Book of Mormon.

In the eyes of Heartlanders, May and his fellow leaders in the movement are akin to prophets of old, raised up out of obscurity to challenge the wisdom of those in power. Critics, meanwhile, warn that not only are their facts cherry-picked and misconstrued, but their narrative also seeks to supplant Native people’s own understanding of their history and heritage — a point May vociferously denies.

How the Heartlanders began

Wayne May, a leader of the Heartlander Movement, which argues Book of Mormon events took place in what is now the heartland of the United States.

The Book of Mormon, which church founder Joseph Smith said he translated from gold plates, professes to tell the story of the immigration of a Jewish family from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. to the Western Hemisphere. Once there, the group splinters, forming two Israelite civilizations known as the Lamanites, depicted as dark-skinned and “cursed,” and the Nephites, described as fair-skinned and mostly righteous.

Smith was the first to declare the Indigenous people of North America the descendants of the Lamanites, although he later expanded that definition to include the inhabitants of Mesoamerica.

During the 20th century, however, influential voices within the church, including a general authority and leading apologist, B.H. Roberts, increasingly focused their attention on Central America, noting the monumental architecture and major cities left behind by the Mayans — a scale of civilization that matched their conception of the size and sprawl of the societies described within the sacred text.

By the time May joined the church in Wisconsin in 1970, this “Mesoamerican model” dominated much of the discourse around the Book of Mormon’s setting. And for a while, he embraced this version.

His “aha moment” came in 1989, when he read a letter dated June 4, 1834, and signed by Joseph Smith in which the faith’s first prophet attributed the land, mounds and human remains he and a group of travelers encountered in Indiana as belonging to the Nephites.

“I turned to my wife and I said, ‘Houston, we got a problem,’” he told an overflow crowd at a Cache County Latter-day Saint chapel during a Feb. 8 fireside.

It was at that point, May said, he turned his attention to the Hopewell.

Less a single nation than a culture that served as the connective tissue for a number of societies, the Hopewell tradition reached its zenith in southern Ohio and Indiana between the first and fifth centuries, according to archaeologist Brad Lepper. Signs of the culture, however, have been discovered from the Mississippi River to the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

Why scholars are skeptics

Since zeroing in on the Hopewell, May and amateur researchers, including Rod Meldrum and Jonathan Neville, have published books, websites, documentaries and countless social media posts arguing that ongoing discoveries in DNA and archaeology leave no question that the Hopewell were the people of the Book of Mormon.

Academics tell a different story.

For this to be true, scholars explain, there would have to be evidence that the Hopewell descended from a single family that immigrated from Jerusalem around 600 B.C. To date, there is none.

One statistic May likes to cite is that the Native Americans in North America carry between 20% and 30% “Israelite DNA.”

“That’s a pretty big deal,” he said in an interview.

Deborah Bolnick, an anthropologist from the University of Connecticut who has been studying Hopewell DNA for years, disagreed.

“He is very much misinterpreting and cherry-picking among the genetic data to make this argument,” she said.

True, both Indigenous populations in the Americas and the Middle East fall within a “broad cluster of related lineages” genetically, she said, but so do groups all over the world, including Western Eurasia and Northern Africa.

Not only that, a specific genetic mutation found in Middle Eastern populations is nowhere to be found in Indigenous Americans. In other words, the two populations live on entirely different branches within a broad genetic group.

Additional “evidence” May and other Heartlanders use to bolster their case include two stones discovered in a burial mound in Newark, Ohio, in 1860 engraved with what appeared to be an early form of Hebrew. For Heartlanders, this was a slam-dunk — proof a person could hold and touch demonstrating that descendants of Israelites walked the New World hundreds of years before Columbus.

The issue with this is that both stones used a modern form of Hebrew.

“Archaeologists are certain it’s a hoax,” Kenneth Feder, an expert in the archaeology of the Native peoples of New England, said. “Case closed.”

May has a theory for why professional scholarship does not align with the Heartlander model: Manifest Destiny.

According to him, today’s researchers are dead set on quashing evidence that any great civilizations existed in North America before Columbus because Westerners don’t like to think about how European settlers took the land from others. In contrast, he argued, the Heartland movement elevates the stories of the people native to the region east of the Mississippi, who he said will tell anyone who asks that they came from the East in boats.

“I can walk into the Seneca Nation, I can walk into the Oneida Nation, I can go into the Ojibwe Nation, and I can come back and everything is peachy,” he said. “They know who I am because I tell their story.”

Feder, a professor emeritus from Central Connecticut State University, explained this argument amounts to “bulls---.”

For one, scholars like him have dedicated their careers to understanding and building awareness of Native cultures of North America, he explained. What’s more, Feder continued, no incentive exists for archaeologists to suppress the narrative May is trying to push — if it were true.

“This happens a lot in archaeology, where we are accused of hiding the truth because we’re hiding some conspiracy,” he said. “But if you believe that, you don’t know many archaeologists. We can’t keep anything quiet.”

Even more concerning to Feder is the notion that May has somehow appointed himself to speak for a diverse group with diverging beliefs about their origins and histories.

In other words, not only are May and other Heartlanders misappropriating others’ research to build their argument, but also the stories and beliefs of separate and distinct Indigenous cultures.

“Anybody who tells you that a lot of Native Americans say they came from the East,” Feder said, “is making that stuff up.”

Why it’s ‘disrespectful’ to Native Americans

(Courtesy of Elise Boxer) Elise Boxer, an assistant professor and coordinator of Native American studies at the University of South Dakota, says that when Latter-day Saints try to fit the title “Lamanite” onto an Indigenous group, they are committing a “very dangerous” act of settler colonialism.

Elise Boxer, an assistant professor and coordinator of Native American studies at the University of South Dakota, has researched and written extensively on settler colonialism, Mormons and indigeneity.

A Dakota from the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands, she said that anytime Latter-day Saints try to fit the title “Lamanite” onto an Indigenous group, they are committing a “very dangerous” act of settler colonialism.

“Ultimately, it undermines Indigenous identity, histories and, more importantly, connection to the land,” she said, stressing that her views were her own and not meant to represent her Native community.

Angelo Baca, a Diné and Hopi doctoral candidate at New York University, put it even more plainly.

“People still think that a book that a young guy imagined out of thin air by sticking his face into a hat and writing it in the dark somehow trumps every single narrative and voice of our own origin stories and beliefs,” Baca said. “That’s ridiculous. It’s disrespectful.”

(Courtesy of Angelo Baca) Angelo Baca, a Diné and Hopi doctoral candidate at New York University, says the Heartlanders' belief about Book of Mormon geography is "disrespectful" of the origin stories of Indigenous peoples.

Adding to the offense is the fact that the Book of Mormon describes the Lamanites as having been “cursed” with dark skin, he continued. The fallout from these kinds of narratives isn’t abstract either.

“These stereotypes and tropes of Indigenous people,” Baca said, “are the reason why soldiers at Sand Creek or Wounded Knee could step on babies’ heads with the heel of their boot and save a bullet.”

For his part, May remains adamant that he and Heartlander believers are “supporting the Native Americans of this country.”

He points to Native American members of the movement.

One, a Diné woman named Betty “Red Ant” LaFontaine, declined to comment. However, she and other self-identified members from several tribes can be found supporting the model on social media pages associated with Heartland — and in particular the FIRM Foundation.

Baca countered that suggesting that a few individuals can represent a whole tribe or even multiple tribes is “another ploy for making Indigenous peoples a monolith.”

Boxer added that “there’s a lot of people who have internalized their own colonization” and “who have bought into the idea that white is better.”

She pointed to the Book of Mormon, which originally described the Lamanites as eventually becoming a “white and delightsome people,” although Smith later changed it to “pure and delightsome.”

Even still, Boxer said, the idea that “white is better is still there” within the church and Mormon culture, and that some Indigenous members have “bought into that” perhaps without realizing it.

Why the Heartlanders are gaining traction now

Despite the problems surrounding archaeology and identity, the group appears to be gaining steam — even as today’s church leaders have assumed a studiously neutral posture on the issue.

In 2007, after DNA research showing no genetic link between Native Americans and Near Eastern peoples, the church changed the Book of Mormon’s introduction to read that Lamanites are “among” the ancestors of Native Peoples — rather than the “principal” ancestors, as previously stated.

Since then, leaders have appeared hesitant to engage with the issue, though a Gospel Topics essay addresses the DNA debate.

Perhaps the best evidence of the enthusiasm for the Heartland model is the research taking place in Montrose, Iowa. There, private researchers hired by the Heartland Research Group, an organization May helped form, have been scanning frozen fields in hopes of identifying Zarahemla across the Mississippi River from Nauvoo, Ill., the church’s headquarters in the early 1840s.

According to May and fellow Heartlander John Lefgren, the effort has attracted 40 volunteers from as far away as Oregon, as well as $650,000 in private donations.

Hanna Seariac, a master’s student at church-owned Brigham Young University studying ancient languages, has been tracking the Heartlander community online for a year. In just six months, she watched one social media account associated with the movement jump by 2,000 members.

Offline support also appears to be gaining ground, according to Brant Gardner, a Book of Mormon scholar who has written numerous books in defense of the Mesoamerican model.

“I see it frequently in wards and talking to people,” Gardner, who lives in New Mexico, said. “It’s a lot more prominent than it was.”

Exactly how popular the Heartland model has become is hard to say. As a reference, May points to the crowds he is able to draw when speaking at private events, estimating anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 might attend the lectures over three days.

“There are a lot of Saints out there that are very, very interested in what we’re doing,” May said, “and they’re paying close attention.”

To this, Gardner grudgingly agreed.

“We can’t get that many people to any of our conferences,” he said, referring to his own community of supporters of the Mesoamerican model. “It’s a point of envy.”

The Trump effect in the movement

(Courtesy of Brant Gardner) Scholar Brant Gardner believe Book of Mormon events took place primarily in Central America.

To understand why the Heartland movement appears to be expanding, Seariac and Gardner agree it helps to examine the core of May’s message.

For him and his followers, convincing others that the Book of Mormon took place in America’s heartland isn’t just about proving the historical nature of the text, although that is part of it. It’s about proving that the United States is God’s chosen land and its inhabitants his chosen people.

“Christian nationalism,” Seariac said, “fuels their interpretation of everything.”

Indeed, speaking to that Cache County audience, May said that accepting that the book took place in America’s heartland is only the first step in realizing that the promised land mentioned within its pages is the United States.

May is far from the first person to make this argument. What’s different, Seariac and Gardner said, is the political environment surrounding it.

Both believe that as the Republican Party, led by former President Donald Trump, adopted an increasingly populist and ethnonationalist posture, many Latter-day Saints followed suit. This, they said, has driven a renewed appetite for May’s model and its accompanying disdain for the work of experts.

“They tend to be anti-vaxxers and to post about QAnon,” Seariac said, “and are just prone to conspiratorial thinking.”

(Courtesy of Hanna Seariac) Hanna Seariac, a master’s student at Brigham Young University studying ancient languages, says many Heartlanders "tend to be anti-vaxxers and to post about QAnon, and are just prone to conspiratorial thinking.”

Heartlanders also tend to be anti-immigration, Seariac and Gardner said. In fact, both agreed that, more than any other belief or concern, this appears to be the driving force behind the current surge in support for the theory — that is, a sense among backers that not only their country but also their sacred text must be reclaimed from foreigners, specifically Latinos.

The way Heartlanders see it, if the Book of Mormon took place in the United States and not, as many Latter-day Saint scholars including Gardner argue, in Central America, then the Native Americans — not Central Americans — are the descendants of the Lamanites.

Seariac and Gardner explained that while this argument may seem nitpicky to outsiders, it has real-world consequences.

“It has allowed a very jingoistic, very racist approach to the Book of Mormon,” Gardner said. “And there are a lot of people that resonates with.”

A March 2021 post shared on the website BookofMormonEvidence.org, maintained by the prominent Heartlander theorist Rod Meldrum, blogger Rian Nelson used this understanding to argue against permitting the swell of immigrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“If they were chosen by the Lord to come to America,” he wrote, “the Lord would allow them here without a lot of legal hankering.”

‘We need to obey Father’

May seemed shocked, even confused, at the prospect that there might be white supremacist undertones to the Heartland movement.

“That just flies in my face big time,” he said. “Absolutely bogus.”

For him, it’s all simple. Too many of his friends have lost their faith looking for ancient Book of Mormon sites in Central America. At the same time, he’s convinced moral decay is corroding the foundations of the United States.

“There’s a lot of bad stuff going on right now,” he said. “People need to realize this is the promised land, and we need to obey [Heavenly] Father.”

In short, if only he could convince his fellow believers to stop fixating on Central America as the theater for the text, his faith and his nation might be saved — the experts and the critics be damned.

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