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CES Reply: Moroni, Cumorah, and Captain Kidd

This is an excerpt from “A Reply from a Former CES Employee.” The entire document can be downloaded for free.

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This is a line-by-line response to Jeremy Runnells’ “Letter to a CES Director: Why I Lost My Testimony.” Jeremy’s words are in green, the color of life, while mine are in black, the color of darkness.

Hill Cumorah:

Off the eastern coast of Mozambique in Africa is an island country called “Comoros.” Prior to its French occupation in 1841, the islands were known by its Arabic name, “Camora.” There is an 1808 map of Africa that refers to the islands as “Camora.”
Camora is near center in the above 1808 Map of Africa.

comoras

 

The largest city and capital of Comoros (formerly “Camora”)? Moroni.

Now we’re getting somewhere. This is much more interesting than Jacobugathian weak sauce you’ve offered up until now.

Certainly Moroni and Cumorah are far more central to the Book of Mormon narrative than the tiny Canadian town of Rama that didn’t yet exist but was still somehow part of the “lands of Joseph’s youth.” Furthermore, Moroni (the man) and Cumorah are linked together, as are Moroni (the town) and Comoros (the island.) So the possible correlation here is far stronger and far more noteworthy than the stuff about the hill Onidah that we’ve all heard so much about.

So before I dive into some of the apologetics on this subject which you’ve probably seen ad nauseum anyway, I want to take a step back and hypothetically concede your point. That is to say, I want to imagine for a moment that Joseph found a contemporary reference to Comoros and Moroni and then decided to make one a hill and one a warrior/writer/nomad/angel in a fictional magnum religious opus about ancient Americans.

How does that explain anything about how the Book of Mormon came to be?

So much of your criticism of the Book of Mormon strains at gnats and swallows camels. Even if Joseph had lifted all these names, or carelessly copied biblical mistakes, or faked having a bunch of plates and spectacles, there’s still the issue of the Book of Mormon itself.

It’s here. It exists. It had to come from somewhere.

A handful of plagiarized names and a sampling of Isaiah excerpts aren’t nearly enough to account for more than 265,000 words of an intergenerational and internally consistent thousand-year history that has endured over a century of scrutiny and still confounds critics and defies easy explanation. You pick two names off a map, and you still have 264,998 words to go.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said it better than I could:

If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that is the case, then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit.

But all right, fine. Comoros and Moroni. You asked, so let’s see if we can find some answers together.

Maybe those answers are in Lamanai, Belize.

What? A city in central America named Lamanai? Certainly some Mormon named it relatively recently. Wait, no – the non-Mormon Journal of Field Archaeology says “Lamanai is in fact one of the very few Maya sites for which the ancient name is recorded.” So Lamanai is an ancient name? Like Laman? Lamanite? Or King Lamoni? The name of an ancient king passed down for centuries…

Gasp! Surely this proves that the Book of Mormon is true!

If your eyes aren’t rolling yet, they should be. This, of course, proves nothing whatsoever. But those who think Comoros and Moroni are solid evidence that Joseph is a fraud are also likely to dismiss Lamanai without a second thought. The fact is that language is weird, and similar stuff shows up in very odd places. Jeff Lindsay, the unofficial apologist guy I linked to above who discovered the non-Mormon Lamanai reference, also recalls meeting Italians with the surname “Moroni.” Why would Italians should share the same name as the capital of a small African island? No good answer for that other than coincidence.

As for Comoros, you’re likely well aware that back then, Moroni was a tiny settlement that wasn’t on maps in 1830 and didn’t become the capital of Comoros until 1876. So even though this coincidence is far more striking than the vague similarities between Sherbrooke and Shurr, there’s really no way that Joseph would have known about Moroni the village at the time he was engaged in the history of Moroni the warrior/writer/nomad/angel. He could have known about Comoros if he was digging through obscure African maps in libraries far removed from Palmyra, but, really, that’s highly unlikely. What would be the point? Especially if he’s so lazy as to lift 1.2% of the names from the “lands of his youth” within a 2,000 mile radius. And if he was combing African maps to mine Book of Mormon names, why did he choose only Comoros and no other African geography? His critics are giving him far too much credit.

I offer up an additional theory that may or may not be helpful. Doubters won’t be impressed, but believers don’t necessarily have to chalk up the name of the village of Moroni solely to coincidence. According to the infallible Wikipedia, the village was “founded by Arabic settlers, possibly during the 10th century.” Any chance that Arabic and reformed Egyptian have some vocabulary in common? Why not? In addition, Comoros was settled by a large Polynesian contingent, too, and many leaders have taught that the Polynesians have ancestral connections to the Book of Mormon. (Not trying to open a can of worms here – those leaders are not infallible, and BYU has conceded that there’s no scientific proof of this.) My point is that the evolution of language is a strange and wonderful thing, and it’s certainly possible that the Nephite name “Moroni” could very well have wormed its way into international lexicons and landing in a tiny island in Africa.

Or not. This isn’t anything more than a fun tidbit to think about.

“Camora” and settlement “Moroni” were common names in pirate and treasure hunting stories involving Captain William Kidd (a pirate and treasure hunter) which many 19th century New Englanders – especially treasure hunters – were familiar with.

No, they weren’t. If they were, those like Grant Palmer and others who lean heavily on the Captain Kidd theory for Moroni and Cumorah’s origins would be able to provide actual references from such stories to back this up, particularly if they were “common names,” which, given the miniscule 1830 size of the Moroni settlement, they clearly were not. Near as I can tell, no such citations exist. (You certainly don’t provide any.) And if these really were common names in popular stories, then why do none of Joseph’s legion of critics notice supposedly obvious Kidd/Cumorah/Moroni connection during Joseph’s lifetime? Why do we have to wait until Grant Palmer comes along in the 21st Century before anyone notices it at all?

In his letters, Kidd himself makes reference to the nearby islands of Madagascar, Johanna, and Mahala, but says nothing of Camora or Moroni. The best that Palmer can do to tie these names to Kidd and then to Joseph is to point out that Kidd operated “in the vicinity” of these two places, because Kidd makes no direct mention of them. Making the leap from being “in the vicinity” of locations Kidd never mentions to a presumption that the unmentioned locales constituted “common names” in stories about Kidd strains credulity to the breaking point. If Kidd’s exploits truly were the linguistic inspiration for the place the plates were buried, we’d be much more likely to be reading about the Hill Mahala than the Hill Cumorah.

Another thought – if we are to presume that Moroni in the Book of Mormon was inspired by the exploits of a glamorous pirate like Captain Kidd, then why is Moroni as un-Kidd-like a figure as it is possible to be? Where’s Moroni’s ship? Where’s his merry band of fellow brigands? Where are all his death-defying scrapes, dashing romances, and fantastical adventures? Moroni is a gloomy loner who wanders the empty landscape for decades without any companions at all and no enemies to face. He’s a great prophet, sure, but he makes for a pretty lousy pirate story.

In fact, the uniform spelling for Hill Cumorah in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon is spelled as “Camorah.”

Which, just to nitpick, is different from “Camora,” which is the spelling of the location on the map you provide.

Pomeroy Tucker was born in Palmyra, New York in 1802, three years before Joseph Smith. He is considered to be a contemporary source. This is what he said about Joseph Smith:

“Joseph … had learned to read comprehensively … [reading] works of fiction and records of criminality, such for instance as would be classed with the ‘dime novels’ of the present day. The stories of Stephen Buroughs and Captain Kidd, and the like, presented the highest charms for his expanding mental perceptions.”

– Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, p.17 

You feel it necessary to point out that Tucker was born in Palmyra three years before Joseph Smith, but you neglect to mention that “Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress” was published in 1867, twenty-three years after the prophet’s death and roughly fifty years after Joseph was allegedly poring through “works of fiction and records of criminality” with special emphasis on the stories of Buroughs and Kidd. I’m left to wonder how many people from my own childhood about whom I could confidently describe their reading habits with any degree of specificity half a century after the fact.

This would be a challenge for me if I were asked to provide such information about my closest friends, let alone someone like Tucker, who makes it clear that he had nothing but contempt for Joseph. (More on that later.) There’s no plausible reason for Tucker to take such a keen interest in Joseph’s early reading habits.

And, of course, Tucker’s opinion on this subject contradicts the entirety of contemporaneous testimony about Joseph’s literary tastes. His enemies unanimously dismissed him as illiterate and ignorant at the time – as does Tucker elsewhere in his book, despite the obvious contradiction with the tidbit you quote –  while even his own mother described him as the one of her children least inclined to reading. If Joseph truly were devouring all the dime novels he could get his hands on in order to accommodate his “expanding mental perceptions,” why did it take nearly five decades for anyone to notice?

Oh, and by the way, why doesn’t Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress say a single word about Kidd’s and Joseph’s supposed connection to the Island of Camora and the settlement of Moroni? If these were, indeed, “common names,” you’d think Tucker, of all people, would be the first to cry foul.

Some apologists say that Tucker’s Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress is anti-Mormon and thus anything in the book cannot be trusted.

“Some apologists?” Who?

The problem with this premise is that LDS scholar and Church history compiler B.H. Roberts quoted Tucker for background information on Joseph and FairMormon has an article where they quoted Tucker 4 times from his book as support for Joseph and even referred to Tucker as an “eye witness” to Joseph and his family. Is Tucker’s peripheral information only useful and accurate when it shows Joseph and the Church in a positive and favorable light?

No, because Tucker’s overall credibility is essentially nil for reasons that have nothing to do with his being pro or anti on any given topic. While I can’t speak for B.H. Roberts or FAIR, who should have known better than to rely on such a spurious source, I once again invoke the Official Grand Poobah of Unofficial Mormon Apologists, none other than the late, great Hugh Nibley himself. I refer you to his penetrating and remarkably funny book The Myth Makers, which was reprinted as part of his collection Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass, available to be read in its entirety online at no charge.

The Myth Makers is written as the transcript of a mock trial, in which a “Chairman” directly questions witnesses against Joseph Smith using their published words as testimony. In the excerpts I quote here, Pomeroy Tucker is coming under withering cross examination. Once again, to distinguish Nibley’s words from yours and mine, I will put them in dark red, the color of fire.

_______________

Chairman: Now Mr. Tucker, I would like to ask you, first of all, just how well you knew Joseph Smith.

Tucker: Very well indeed: “he is distinctly remembered by me . . . from the age of twelve to twenty years.”

Chairman: And Smith was an important figure in Palmyra from the age of twelve to twenty years?

Tucker: Don’t make me laugh, sir. “From the age of twelve to twenty years he is distinctly remembered as a dull-eyed, flaxen haired, prevaricating boy—noted only for his indolent and vagabondish character.”10

Chairman: So during all the time you knew him, Smith was noted for one thing only—being a lazy tramp. Was he much of a public figure?

Tucker: On the contrary, “taciturnity was among his characteristic idiosyncrasies, and he seldom spoke to anyone outside of his immediate associates. . . . He nevertheless evidenced the rapid development of a thinking, plodding, evil-brewing mental composition—largely given to inventions of low cunning, schemes of mischief and deception, and false and mysterious pretensions. He . . . was never known to laugh.”11

Chairman: From what you say, Mr. Tucker, it is clear that you not only remember Joseph Smith distinctly, but that you knew him very well indeed—perhaps better than anyone else. It is plain that Smith was exceedingly hard to get acquainted with and that he was devilishly secretive, but even if he had been frank and open, the intimate knowledge you profess of his mental composition could only come from the closest association. Now, what was it that induced you, a very hard-working and ambitious young man, to spend your time with a perfectly worthless vagabond four and a half years your junior? You were no child when you first met Smith.

Tucker: You don’t have to be a man’s close friend to observe his character.

Chairman: According to you, you had to get close to Smith to observe him at all, since he wouldn’t even speak to anyone “outside of his associates.” And to say immediately what any man “largely” devoted his time and energy to, and what things he “was never known” to do, requires spending a good deal of time with him—unless, of course, your famous firsthand report is only hearsay. Did you think associating with Smith could contribute to your career? Did you perhaps find him an interesting person—even in a bad way?

Tucker: Of course not. As I told you, he was “noted only for his indolent and vagabondish character.” He was “a dull-eyed, flaxen-haired, prevaricating boy” who never spoke to anybody and “was never known to laugh.”

Chairman: That answers my question. It would be hard to imagine duller company.

_______________

The whole exchange is well worth reading. It also turns out Tucker left Palmyra and lived thirty miles away for nearly four of the eight years during which he supposedly knew Joseph Smith, a fact he conveniently omits from his own dubiously detailed history.

In his book, he invents a great of patently false nonsense, including a massive cave on the outskirts of town in which Joseph hunkered down to translate the Book of Mormon as a cadre of armed guards stood watch, which somehow went unnoticed by anyone else, a fact Tucker attributes to the idea that this bizarre and fascinating spectacle was paradoxically boring and “scarcely attracted the curiosity of outsiders.”

As for your Tucker citations, how can one have an insatiable literary appetite and “expanding mental perceptions” when one is “indolent,” “vagabondish,” “dull-eyed,” and “never known to laugh,” as well as taciturn to the point of complete withdrawal from the community at large?

Nibley, 1; Tucker, 0.

“We are sorry to observe, even in this enlightened age, so prevalent a disposition to credit the accounts of the marvellous. Even the frightful stories of money being hid under the surface of the earth, and enchanted by the Devil or Robert Kidd  (Captain Kidd), are received by many of our respectable fellow citizens as truths.” – Wayne Sentinel, Palmyra, New York, February 16, 1825 

I don’t understand why you think this quote adds anything to your point. It comes from an article that is unsigned and may or may not have been written by Tucker, and, more importantly, makes no reference to Joseph Smith whatsoever. It was not written about him. Rather, it’s criticism of an unnamed “respectable gentleman in Tunbridge” who had a dream about where Captain Kidd had buried his treasure.

I guess it proves that people knew who Captain Kidd was in 1825, but it tells us nothing about Joseph Smith, and, curiously, it doesn’t seem to mention the supposedly “common names” of Camora or Moroni at all.

Notice that this is considered “prevalent” and “received by many of our respectable fellow citizens as truths.” The above contemporary 1825 Palmyra, New York newspaper quote was not tainted by any desire to damage Joseph Smith. This article provides a snapshot of the worldview of 1825 New England.

Glad it wasn’t tainted by any desire to damage Joseph Smith, because it does absolutely no damage to Joseph Smith. If anything, it points out that Joseph Smith wasn’t nearly as notorious in 1825 as Tucker and others later claimed. If he were, surely his name would have been all over this, as he would sell far more papers than just another respectable gentleman in Tunbridge.

Hill Cumorah and Moroni have absolutely nothing to do with Camora and Moroni from Captain Kidd stories?

Correct. Camora and Moroni cannot be found in any Captain Kidd stories or even in any of Captain Kidd’s factual accounts.

Stories that Joseph and his treasure hunting family and buddies were familiar with?

We only have Pomeroy Tucker’s highly suspect word on the matter that Joseph was a Captain Kidd fan, but, regardless, familiarity with Captain Kidd stories that contain no references to Camora or Moroni could not have provided fodder for plagiarism and have no bearing whatsoever on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

The original 1830 Book of Mormon uniform “Camorah” spelling?

Which, again, is different from the spelling on the 1808 map you provide.

This is all just a mere coincidence?

Not at all. To have coincidence, you first need incidence. As there’s no incidence with regard to Camora or Moroni in connection to Captain Kidd, there’s not enough happening here to rise to the level of coincidence.

Tomorrow: View of the Hebrews – Part I

CES Reply: Book of Mormon geography
CES Reply: View of the Hebrews - Part I

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  1. interesting take on all of this, and your effort is much appreciated! An area that I find that weakens your argument is when you discuss Lamanai, Belize. I believe it predates Lehi’s voyage, though I might be wrong. I understand why you are referencing it, to prove that naming conventions don’t “prove” anything, but, in my opinion, it detracts from your argument.

    Kepp up the good work!

    • Thanks very much, although, in my defense, I think I made it very clear that I wasn’t citing Lamanai as evidence of anything but coincidence. From my reply:

      “If your eyes aren’t rolling yet, they should be. This, of course, proves nothing whatsoever. But those who think Comoros and Moroni are solid evidence that Joseph is a fraud are also likely to dismiss Lamanai without a second thought. The fact is that language is weird, and similar stuff shows up in very odd places. Jeff Lindsay, the unofficial apologist guy I linked to above who discovered the non-Mormon Lamanai reference, also recalls meeting Italians with the surname ‘Moroni.’ Why would Italians should share the same name as the capital of a small African island? No good answer for that other than coincidence.”