Failed 19th Century Attempts at Describing Nephi's Arabian Journey

Modern critics of the Book of Mormon seem to agree that Nephi's inland route of travel, through Arabia, is basically correct, in light of what we know today. 

After fleeing Jerusalem and then leaving their initial base camp, Lehi's family travels in a south-southeast direction, following the coast of the Red Sea. One of the elders of the group dies and is buried in "the place which was called Nahom". Up until this point, the group had named their various stopping points, but the record uses the passive tense here to show that it already had a name. After their stay in Nahom, Lehi's group then travels "nearly eastward", paralleling the frankincense trail, traveling "through affliction", until the reach a lush and verdant coast they name Bountiful. The above correlation with ancient Arabia is strong, as one critic acknowledged:

Among critical historians who accept that the BoM arose as a modern production of Joseph Smith, two main theories have been offered to explain the presence of Nahom in the narrative. The first is that the correspondence of Nahom with Nihm is accidental, having resulted from Smith borrowing/inventing a name whose consonantal stem just happened to overlap with NHM when translated into English. According to Dan Vogel, one of the most vocal proponents for accidental correspondence, the tri-consonantal stem NHM in South Arabian is an inadequate basis upon which to identify it with BoM Nahom, since it is unclear whether the two words are in fact related. We have already mentioned that Nahom looks distinctly similar to Hebrew naḥum, and so Vogel suggests that because many BoM names were apparently adapted by Smith from the KJV Bible, a simpler explanation of the word is that it is “a variant of Naham (1 Chron. 4:19), Nehum (Ne. 7:7), or Nahum (Na. 1:1).”

However, we have already seen above that the case for linking Nahom with South Arabian Nihm is reasonably strong. Even if Nahom reflects an incorrect voweling of Nihm, a number of interlocking details suggest that the appearance of Nahom in the BoM rises to a level beyond what could be explained as mere coincidence, including 1) the fact that there appears to be only one major tribe in this part of South Arabia attested from ancient to modern times with a name built from the consonants NHM; 2) the BoM places Nahom in the general vicinity of central Yemen where Nihm is located, at a point where a route following southeast from northern Arabia could at least theoretically turn eastward and reach the coast of southern Oman; and 3) Nahom is portrayed as a pre-existing name, which is unique in the context of the journey of Lehi’s party from Jerusalem to Bountiful.

The case for linking Nahom with South Arabian Nehem is strong but it wasn't always so. It wasn't until votive altars at the ancient city of Marib, mentioning the tribe of NHM, dating to 600 BC, were discovered that the correlation was strongly asserted. These archaeological findings show that the Nehem tribe inhabited the same general area that it inhabits today. Found in the same area, and from the same time, as  Nephi's time and location for Nahom, these altars can thus be said to be "the first actual archaeological evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon."  

During the lifetime of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the convergence of 1 Nephi with pre-Islamic Arabian geography was not seen as historical evidence that needed to be explained away. It appears that no such convergence was even known; and if the Joseph Smith Papers are any indication, Nephi's Arabia doesn't even seem to interest Joseph at all. But what about his critics and friends? Some modern critics insist that Joseph had access to a map of Arabia; S. Kent Brown has responded by showing how unlikely this would be.

If Joseph "must have" seen it on a map somewhere then dictated the book, while staring into a rock in a hat, what about his contemporaries? Is the poor farm hand from Palmyra the only one supposedly looking at these maps? Let's play Devil's advocate and, for the sake of argument, say that Joseph did see a map of Arabia, sometime between 1805 and 1829.

Let's go a step further and get conspiratorial and say that either Joseph, Martin Harris or Oliver Cowdery saw maps of Arabia and took Nahom/Nehem from there. Let's say they "must have" made a secret trip to NYC and saw one of the maps available at the time. How helpful would it have been in describing ancient Arabian travel, as it occurs in the Book of Mormon?

We can't prove someone didn't know something. In Joseph's case, as mentioned before, we can't even determine what he did know about Arabia. However, we can look at his friends and contemporary critics, who in their commentaries on 1 Nephi, do make use of maps in attempting to correlate the story with the real world. How close were they to getting it right?

If we can show, that Joseph's contemporaries, with their use of maps, knew as much about the trail described in 1 Nephi as we do then we can rationally assume that Joseph and his "co-conspirators" got the information in 1 Nephi from their research. However, if Joseph's contemporaries, with the use of maps, got the geography wrong then we can rationally assume that, with or without a map, Joseph would have gotten it wrong too. The following is not a comprehensive listing of then contemporary attempts at correlating 1 Nephi with Arabia but it's a start.

After Lehi and his family had wandered in the wilderness, near the Red Sea, eight years, where they supported themselves by hunting, they came to a fertile country, which they call the land Bountiful. This country, according to the description Nephi has given of the course of his travels, must have been on the coast of the Sea of Arabia, or the Indian Ocean, which is a barren, sandy desert.
To believe the book of Mormon, we must suppose that these emigrants traversed almost the whole length of the Arabian Gulf, without finding any inhabitants, where any body else would have encountered a number of populous cities; and that they discovered a country almost equal to paradise, where no body else can find any thing but a sandy, barren desert.

(Nephi's journey, based on Kidder's reading of 1 Nephi)
Mormonism and the Mormons; A Historical View of the Rise and Progress of the Sect Self-Styled Latter-day Saints(1842).
Verily here is multum in parvo! What a model for future travellers! Captain Gulliver can no longer be considered as the standard of excellence in this species of writing. In order fully to appreciate the beauties, as well as the consistency, of this narrative, let us turn to an approved map of Palestine, and the adjoining countries. On the supposition that the Lord was actually about to people the western continent by means of this family, the first query that arises is, why were they not directed to the Mediterranean Sea, which was so near Jerusalem, instead of being made to perform the long and perilous journey to the borders of the Red Sea? more especially since the voyage through the former would have been shorter by six or seven thousand miles, (no trifling distance,) than the one performed according to the data given. An easterly course from the borders of the Red Sea would have taken them across the Desert of Arabia to the Persian Gulf. 

Orson Pratt: Journal of Discourses (1870-74)
And then he commenced telling him that this great American continent was once occupied by a numerous people, the descendants of the house of Israel, most of them the descendants of a remnant of the tribe of Joseph; that they came here from Jerusalem by the direct guidance of the Almighty, some six centuries before Christ; that in a vessel, which they built by the command of God, they came round by the Gulf of Arabia, crossed the Great Pacific Ocean, and landed on the western coast of South America (September 20, 1874).

He brought them from Jerusalem first down to the Red Sea. They traveled along the eastern borders of the Red Sea for many days, and then bore off in an eastern direction which brought them to the Arabian Gulf. There they were commanded of the Lord to build a vessel. They went aboard of this vessel and were brought by the special providence of God across the great Indian and Pacific Oceans, and landed on the western coast of South America (April 10, 1870).

(“New Modern Map of Arabia,” D’Anville, with Improvements by Niebuhr, Published by Laurie & Whittle (London, 1794))

When we compare these three descriptions of Nephi' Arabian journey, by Nichols, Kidder and Pratt, all contemporaries of Joseph Smith, we can see that they all place Nephi's journey in Arabia.

(S. A. Mitchell Sr.'s important c. 1850 map of Arabia, Persia, and Afghanistan)

Orson Pratt and the Nichols both use the term "Gulf of Arabia", which isn't a term found in the Bible or The Book of Mormon but does appear in maps from that era. So we can safely assume, along with the latter's mention of "populous cities", that these two were using maps when interpreting 1 Nephi. Nichols, the writer of the Christian Watchman article, also claims that the verdant paradise described in 1 Nephi is impossible, citing common knowledge that the whole of Arabia is a desert wasteland. He obviously didn't know about  the Dhofar region of Oman, so why should we assume Joseph Smith did?

Daniel Parrish Kidder locates Bountiful on the Persian Gulf, which is composed of desert and semi-desert, being too far north and arid for Nephi's Bountiful. Daniel Parrish Kidder gets Bountiful's location wrong because he doesn't know about the inland routes of travel that S. Kent Brown and other moderns do.

Orson's take on Nephi's geography bypasses the Arabian peninsula, almost entirely. Per Orson, Nephi's ship was built on the coast of the Arabian Gulf, somewhere in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, not the eastern coast of Oman. Orson says that "they came round by the Gulf of Arabia, crossed the Great Pacific Ocean". According to Webster's Dictionary 1828, as an adverb, round means "circularly; in a circular form".

Both quotes were recorded four years apart, and corroborate each other, minimizing the possibility that the wording represents scribal error. Orson Pratt got the geography dead wrong and why wouldn't he? Again, he didn't have the resources of Warren P. Aston or S. Kent Brown and neither did the Prophet Joseph Smith.

As S. Kent Brown has noted:

 From the general region of the NHM tribe, all roads turned east. How so? Across the Ramlat Sabcatayn desert, east of this tribal region and east of Marib, lay the city of Shabwah, now in ruins. By ancient Arabian law, it was to this city that all incense harvested in the highlands of southern Arabia was carried for inventorying, weighing, and taxing. In addition, traders made gifts of incense to the temples at Shabwah. After this process, traders loaded the incense and other goods onto camels and shipped them toward the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian areas, traveling at first westward and then, after reaching the edges of the region of the NHM tribe, turning northward (these directions are exactly opposite from those that Nephi and his party followed). Even the daunting shortcuts across the Ramlat Sabcatayn desert, which left travelers without water for 150 miles, ran generally east-west. 

This is also a detail that Joseph Smith could not have known. According to S. Kent Brown:

Joseph Smith could not have acquired that fact from any map produced before his era except one in London, in codex form. Only the map of Arabia Felix that accompanies the Codex Ebnerianus of Ptolemy’s Geography, which was copied about ad 1460 and is now owned by the New York Public Library, shows a trail that turns east in south Arabia. This trail probably comes from the influence of Arab cartographers on the maker of the map because Ptolemy does not describe the trail in the written part of his work where he lists towns and their locations. This codex, which is not one of the more important copies of Ptolemy’s work because it does not make Lister’s list, came into the possession of the New York Public Library only in 1892 from a London book dealer named Bernard Quaritch and was not published until 1932.

Frederick G. Williams

The above quote has been attributed variously to Joseph Smith Jr., Frederick G. Williams and John M. Bernhisel. The best evidence points to Frederick G. Williams as the source, possibly in connection with the studies being done in the School of the Prophets, see here and here.

Frederick attempts to correlate the description of Nephi's journey, with Arabia, by the clear use of a map. However, even though he gets very close, having Nephi set sail off the coast of the Arabian Sea and not the Persian Gulf, as one anti-Mormon had done; like the three commentators I've written about before, he is still in the wrong place.

The nineteenth degree of North latitude is too far north of Nahom/Nehem, which is in Yemen, just north-west of Marib. Also the eastward turn of all southbound traffic in the region happens at Wadi Jawf, not halfway between Mecca and Sana'a.

The Prophet Joseph Smith translating, with Martin Harris as scribe.

Also of interest is the fact that neither Fredrick G. Williams, Orson Pratt, William Nichols or Daniel P. Kidder equate Nahom with Nehem. As James Gee and S. Kent Brown have pointed out, the vast majority of maps, from this time period, did not have any mention of Nehem. Only the finest and most expensive maps, owned by the wealthy, acquired by libraries via donation did.

If Nehem was on the map Fredrick G. Williams was using, why the false coordinates? The most likely answer is that Nehem was not on his map.19th century Mormons, like some of us, were giddy about these sorts of things and wouldn't hesitate in publishing the correlation, had they known it existed. The fact that Fredrick G. William's note wasn't published until well after his death, and by his family no less, shows how inconsequential it really was.

Anti-Mormons would also be expected to mention the Nahom/Nehem correlation, had they known about it, either as evidence of Joseph's inability to spell or of his very mundane sources.

Charles Anton claimed that the transcript of Nephite characters, shown to him by Martin Harris, was copied from an existing and accesible rendering of the Mexican calendar. Anti-Mormons certainly reffered to the Arabian setting of Nephi's journey when referring to the percieved impossibility of a paradise, like Bountiful, existing in Arabia or when showing the improbability of sailing to the Americas via the Indian Ocean.

Yet again, if Joseph's friends and enemies didn't know about Nahom/Nehem and the eastward turn that leads to Bountiful/Dhofar, on what grounds do we claim he did?

What if the idea came from Joseph?
Frederick G. Williams was appointed clerk and scribe to Joseph Smith on July, 20, 1832. He was, for a time, one of Joseph's counselors in the First Presidency. Frederick G. Williams was such a close friend and confidant to Joseph, that Emma and Joseph named one of their sons after him, Fredrick Granger Williams Smith. Though the best evidence points to the quote as coming from Frederick G. Williams, it is possible that the information came to Frederick from Joseph.

If so, it would prove that Joseph didn't know where Nahom/Nehem was nor where the "east ward turn" occurred either; but alas, we may never know how Frederick came upon this idea. Occam's Razor would have us attribute it to Frederick G. Williams, as his wife did; that is who the evidence points to. At the very least, someone very close to the Prophet Joseph Smith had a map and got it wrong.

The next three quotes come from two anti-Mormon publication and an apologetic one. Both speak in very general terms and seem to display a lack of knowledge regarding the  specific details and convergences between Arabia and 1 Nephi, as described in the Book of Mormon.

Evidences in Proof of the Book of Mormon, Being a Divinely Inspired Record, by Charles Blancher Thompson, Batavia, N.Y. : Published by D.D. Waite, pg 96.
Again, the Book of Mormon gives an account of a remnant of the tribe of Joseph who left Judea by God’s commandment in the days of Jeremiah the Prophet, just before the Babelonish captivity of the Jewish nation by Nebuchadrezzar, and went in to the borders of the wilderness near the shore of the red sea, taking with them the books of the Prophets and of Moses engraven upon brass plates; and after wandering in the wilderness for the space of eight years, they came to the sea which they called Irreantum, which being interpreted is, many waters; the same I presume that is now called the Arabian sea. 

 Delusions. Painesville Telegraph (Painesville, Ohio) 2, nos. 38, 39 (8, 15 March 1831). 
 These pilgrims travelled several days journey in some wilderness, “a South, South-east direction, along the borders of the Red Sea.” A ball with pointers on it, inscribed with various intelligence, legible at proper times, was the pillar and index in passing through the wilderness for many, very many days. By their bow and arrow they lived for eight years, travelling an easterly course from Jerusalem, until they came to a great sea.

E.D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 1834.
From page 39 to 42, is principally taken up in giving an account of eight year's travels, following the direction of one of the spindles through the wilderness. It traversed eastwardly and southeastwardly, bringing them all safely on the borders of the Red sea, with the exception of Ishmael, who dies in the mean time. Nephi is now commanded by the Lord, to repair to the top of a mountain, where he sees a vision, in which he is informed that he must build a ship, and where he can find ore from which to manufacture tools.

Maps or no maps, what could the Prophet Joseph Smith, or his "co-conspirators", have known in 1830 about ancient Arabian travel? Answer: Not much. If they had depended on the knowledge of the day, they most certainly would have had similar results as their contemporaries, in producing incorrect, impossible or, at best, vague geographies.  For this, and other reasons, the Marib altars remain the first and possibly single best archaeological evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.