Proponents of a Great Lakes Book of Mormon geographic model often claim that Book of Mormon prophecies about the Promised Land apply uniquely to what is now the United States.
It’s important to understand a few things about scriptural references to the “promised land.” First, there is obviously more than one land of promise (because both the Old and New World covenant people had such lands). The land could include a large area — or land of promise — as well as smaller sections of lands of promise in a larger area of promise. Thus the Book of Mormon can speak of lands of promise (see 2 Nephi 6:11, 9:2, 24:2).
Secondly, the “promise” was given to the righteous people. As Near Eastern specialist Dr. William Hamblin notes, “The Lord makes covenants with people, not lands. (L)ands are ‘promised’ (or better [‘covenanted,’]) to a people.”
This land could move with the righteous people. As ethnohistory specialist Brant Gardner explains, the land of promise isn’t strictly geographical. While the Nephite’s original land of promise was their landing location, this changed when they went to the city of Nephi. Gardner notes:
“They were kicked out of that and moved to Zarahemla (by ‘other’ nations). The(y) were kicked out of Zarahemla to Bountiful. Yet they still talked about their land of promise and the promise of protection, even when it was clear that they were no longer in the ‘original’ land of promise ... the Book of Mormon promise, in practice, was attached to the people, not the land. Even after losing the original land, the land of Nephi, and the city of Zarahemla, they still called upon the promise as one of protection, not property.”
Great Lakes proponents often quote 1 Nephi 13:12-15, which talks about a gentile who would be led by the Spirit to cross many waters to come to the remnant of Lamanites in the “promised land.” Latter-day Saints have traditionally inferred this to be Columbus and his discovery of America. Great Lakes theorists seem to ignore, however, the fact that Columbus never set foot into what is currently the United States. His voyages focused on the Bahamas, the northern part of South America and the Central American areas.
Verses 13-15 tell us that more gentiles would come to the Promised Land and would scatter the Lamanites. Many Latter-day Saints have inferred that this accounts for the founding of United States and the wars with the American Indians. While this certainly could be part of the prophecy’s fulfillment, as President Spencer W. Kimball explained, this could also refer to the Spaniards who came to different parts of North and South America (quoted in Matthew Roper, “Losing the Remnant," available January 2011 at BYU’s Maxwell Institute).
In 2 Nephi 10:11 we are told that the Promised Land — “this land” — would be a “land of liberty” to the gentiles, and they would have “no kings.” Certainly, this sounds like what we have in the United States. There is no question that the Lord’s hand was involved in the establishment of the United States and the freedoms — especially the religious freedoms — that we enjoy. Such a land was necessary for the restoration of the gospel.
Having noted this, however, there are a couple of important things to consider. First, Orson Hyde — an early LDS leader and contemporary of Joseph Smith — quoted the above verse and claimed that “‘This land,’ means both North and South America, and also the families of islands that geographically and naturally belong and adhere to the same,” (JD 7:108). The phrase “this land” does not necessarily restrict the Promised Land to the United States.
According to the church-approved Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “Zion” is synonymous with the Promised Land. It is interesting therefore to note that Joseph Smith claimed that Zion constituted North and South American as well as anywhere the righteous Saints gather.
Secondly, it’s odd to read Jacob (2 Nephi 10) say that there would be no “kings” in the Promised Land because his brother Nephi was the king, and there continued to be kings in the Promised Land for another 400 years. Jacob began this topic by paraphrasing Isaiah (49), and the point of his comments was that if they remained righteous they would continue to have religious liberty and that they would be protected against those who fought against Zion.
Gardner points out that if the comma in verse 11 were removed, the verse would make more sense: “… and there shall be no kings upon the land(,) who shall rise up unto the Gentiles” (in this early context, the gentiles would still have been the non-Israelite “others” in their vicinity).
“His point is that no other kings shall stand against the Nephites if they are righteous, for their true king is Yahweh who has promised to preserve them” ("Second Witness," 2:188).
While we certainly can accept that the Lord had a special plan that involved the freedoms of America, this doesn’t necessarily mandate that the Book of Mormon events took place in Joseph Smith’s immediate vicinity.