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CROSS-POSTED TO MORMONMATTERS.ORG 5/29/10. JOIN THE DISCUSSION THERE!
Distinctly Mormon doctrines relating the physical appearance of humanity to God’s own “preferred” form grew gradually in early Restoration history rather than springing forth full form. Although there are references in the Book of Mormon (the earliest recorded of Joseph Smith’s prophetic writings) to the Brother of Jared seeing the “finger” and then the full vision of Christ, even the earliest published accounts of the First Vision do not feature descriptions of two personages appearing as does the “official” version eventually recorded several years after formation of the church. This doesn’t mean that later descriptions were contradictory to the first version; it does suggest that certain features of the encounter took on greater significance in light of subsequent experience.
The emphasis on the “physicality of God” even in the spiritual realm grew in concert with notions of the Eternal Family and its role and function in achieving and living in Celestial Glory. The elaboration of this theology is natural as the early church leadership began to push, at first secretly, new forms of marriage and family life, but it was not an inevitable evolution of the theology of the 1830 Restoration. For example, no one in the Community of Christ expects that the afterlife is about progressing to populate new worlds with our own spiritual offspring, as Heavenly Father populated our own world. In one denomination, it is THE Heavenly Father; in the other it is Heavenly Father, with the seldom spoken inference that there may be Heavenly Mother lurking in the theology as well.
Scholarly theories that place the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica define the “small neck of land” that separated the “land northward” from the “land southward” (see, e.g, LDS Alma 22:27-34 / CofChrist Alma 13:68-80; LDS Alma 50:6-16 / CofChrist Alma 22:6-16) to be some portion of the Isthmus of Tihuantepec. This immediately raises questions about the geographic correlation for modern readers and makes many Mormons look for alternative locations because that isthmus separates what we would consider “east” (Yucatan) from “west” (Central Mexico).
In his book, An Ancient American Setting for The Book of Mormon, John L. Sorenson spends some time explaining that the directions we use are cultural artifacts that are not universally shared. For example, modern Western nations define east to be the direction of sunrise, and west as the direction of sunset. In fact, though our cultures did that long ago, we actually transitioned to defining north and south once we had compasses and then laid out a global system of four cardinal directions for the entire planet even though the direction of sunrise and sunset varies throughout the year and by how far we are from the earth’s equator.
If we consider the DNA evidence of the peopling of the Americas, I think there is a way to build a better solution to the directional problem on Sorenson’s framework.