The Zelph Incident

The Zelph Incident Many Mormon scholars believe that events described in the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica, but this is contradicted by an account in the History of the Church. It records an incident from June 1834 in which Joseph Smith identified a skeleton found in an Indian burial mound in Illinois: “the visions of the past being opened to my understanding by the Spirit of the Almighty, I discovered the person whose skeleton was before us was a white Lamanite, a large, thick-set man, and a man of God. His name was Zelph . . . who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea to the Rocky mountains” (History of the Church 2:79-80).

Hill Cumorah MormonA study of the texts used to compile this portion of the History of the Church found that it was changed from what was in the original journal accounts and noted that Cumorah was not even named. It was later editors who worded things in first-person to make it seem as if Joseph Smith actually wrote these words, but that is not so. They wanted to give him credit for the history he had begun writing and dictating, so they continued the first-person account. One must exercise caution in such matters.

For a discussion of this subject, see Kenneth W. Godfrey, “What is the Significance of Zelph in the Study of Book of Mormon Geography?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999), posted at