Compass Directions in Book of Mormon Lands

In recent decades LDS scholarship has begun to publish some very good materials that establish the Book of Mormon as an authentic Mesoamerican document. Perhaps the most influential author in this regard is John Sorenson, a BYU professor and author of “An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon.”

I have recently begun reading through this book, and I find myself in chapter 2 and in need of recording some of the things I have learned so far. The stated purpose of the book is to provide a “plausible” case for the Book of Mormon as an authentic Mesoamerican record. In my opinion it accomplishes this goal with considerable success. Anti-Mormons should be asked to read the book before they continue their attacks on the Book of Mormon.

I imagine I will continue to record little things that I discover in the course of reading this book, and so subsequent posts will be dedicated to that. All of them will archived under “Book of Mormon Commentary”.


The first thing that really grabbed my attention was Sorenson’s explanation for why the suggested geography of BoM lands does not correctly match modern compass directions. Below is a map from Google Earth of the area which most BoM scholars consider to be the region in which BoM events transpired.

Book of Mormon Lands

The “narrow neck of land” mentioned so often in the BoM narrative corresponds to the narrow Isthmus of Teotihuantepec seen right in the center of the map above, east of the word Oaxaca and west of the word Chiapas.

The land found to the East of the isthmus is considered the “land northward” in the Book of Mormon, while the land found to the West is the “land southward”. The obvious thought you may be having is, “but East is not North, and West is not South, so how can this be?”

Sorenson gives brief explanations of various ancient systems of orientation in order to illustrate that our modern understanding, which is based on a relatively recent discovery of Earth magnetism, was not used by every culture throughout the world. Many cultures used systems very different from todays.

But, that isn’t enough to explain how the Book of Mormon lands could match the picture above. Sorenson explains on page 38-39 that in ancient Israel directions were determined by their relationship to a person standing with his back to the Mediterranean Sea, his face towards the desert to the East. Sorenson explains:

Yam (“sea”) then meant “west”, for the Mediterranean lay in that direction, while qedem (“fore”) stood for “east.” Then yamin (“right”) meant “south,” while shemol (“left hand”) denoted “north.” In Palestine, this model coincided nicely with nature (the coast runs nearly north-south) and also proved neatly translatable to our European uses of the terms east, west, north, and south.

This model of directions used in Israel is easily understood with the aid of this map:

Imagine Lehi leaving Israel with this general method of determining compass directions. It has been long held that Lehi and family landed on the southwest side of Mesoamerica, having crossed the Pacific Ocean. If this is true, Lehi would have stood with his back to the sea (which was south-southwest) and called that yam, or “west.” Therefore, on his left hand would be “north” (which was actually west-northwest), on his right hand was “south”, and directly in front of him would be “east”. Transporting this ancient Israelite model directly to the New World provides us with a means for understanding the skewed directions (from our perspective) that we find in the Book of Mormon.

Sorenson emphasizes that it is important to remember that the Book of Mormon almost always designates the land as “northward” and “southward,” with extremely rare occasions in which it is simply designated as “north” or “south”.

More to come later.

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2 comments on “Compass Directions in Book of Mormon Lands

  1. uft36 says:

    Hi! Have you checked out my blog I hope you will find it interesting. I took a different approach to map the Book of Mormon lands based on Joseph Smith, Native American traditions and archeology. As far as directions are concerned I think Sorenson forgot about the Liahona. I believe it was a magnetic compass with other technology incorporated into it, like the Urim and Thummin, so that they can receive instructions from the Lord. The ancients had magnetic compass technology. Please visit my post
    This next paragraph is from
    143. Likewise, “Liahona” is not Hebrew, and likewise, all attempts at translating it have failed, leaps of fancy notwithstanding. LI = a classifier of long, slender objects. A = the number 2. HO = the V made by birds in flight indicating a direction; that which points the way. NA = a stone or other hard object with writing on it. LIAHONA = a compass with two spindles, one of which points the direction and the other of which points to characters written inscribed around the periphery of the dial to spell out messages.
    The author has a better website at Excellent source of information on languages and Book of Mormon history. He makes more sense than most researchers I have read and no one is spared including members of the LDS Church.

  2. James

    With regard to Sorenson’s justification for claiming the Nephites oriented themselves based on placing their backs to the sea when they landed and calling that direction west. Unfortunately, Sorenson was either unaware of or chose to ignore the fact that the Hebrew word for east means sunrise and the use of back to mean west was based on the custom of orienting themselves by facing sunrise as did almost all pre-maritime cultures. It is hard for me to imagine Lehi’s family arriving at the seashore to the south of Mesoamerica, facing the sunrise and then calling the direction to their backs west. Besides that the Hebrews had another word for west in additiuon to the word back. It is also unreasonable to assume that such an error was promulgated for over a thousand years when exposed to the culture around them that oriented directions based on the pathway of the sun as it passed through the sky during the day. A carefull examination of the directional usage in the Book of Mormon suggests that the Nephites used a directional orientation similar to that used by other cultures in Mesoamerica. See my website for a more detailed discussion of this subject.

    Larry P

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