“From the Sea South to the Sea North from the Sea West to the Sea East”

Alan C. Miner

In Helaman 3:8 it says that the people "did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east." According to Hugh Nibley, in the Codex Ramirez, which is published in Mexico City, we are told how the first Montezuma conquered almost from sea to sea and he ruled to the sea southward, and in another direction to the limits of the great sea, 300 leagues to the south. So he ruled almost from sea to sea. There was the sea on all sides there. [Hugh W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 4, p. 237]

Geographical [Theory Map]: Helaman 3:3 Many Depart to the Land Northward (46th Year)

Helaman 3:8 [People Cover ]the Face of the Earth (46th Year)

“From the Sea South to the Sea North from the Sea West to the Sea East”

According to John Clark, there is a passage in Helaman which refers to the spread of the Nephites into the land northward and the land southward. In Helaman 3:8 we read that the Nephites "did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.

According to John Clark, when taken in context this passage refers to the land northward and the land southward and may have been meant in a metaphorical rather than a literal way:

Explaining away difficult passages as metaphors goes against one of my guiding assumptions for dealing with the text, but in this case I think it is well justified. North and south sea probably have no more concrete meaning than the phrases 'filling the whole earth' and 'as numerous as the sands of the sea.' Mormon waxes poetic whenever describing the Nephites' peaceful golden age of uninterrupted population growth and expansion. This is understandable given the circumstances under which he wrote, and his knowledge of the certain doom of his people. It is interesting that in a parallel passage describing the same sort of population expansion no north or south sea is mentioned:

And thus it did come to pass that the people of Nephi began to prosper again in the land, and began to build up their waste places, and began to multiply and spread, even until they did cover the whole face of the land, both on the northward and on the southward, from the sea west to the sea east. (Helaman 11:20)

I am convinced that the reference to a north sea and south sea is devoid of any concrete geographical content. All specific references or allusions to Book of Mormon seas are only to the east and west seas. Any geography that tries to accommodate a north and south sea, I think, is doomed to fail.

[John Clark, "A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies," in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 1, 1989, pp. 63-65]

Note* In view of Clark's scriptural argument and his assertions, one might be led to believe that the existence of a "sea south" and a "sea north" would be illogical and close the door to further consideration. That is the rub. The fact that a geographical feature (in this case a "sea north" or "sea south") appears metaphorical, or is specifically referred to once (or maybe not at all), does not negate its existence.

Most Book of Mormon scholars place the overwhelming cultural evidence for the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica is nearly surrounded by seas: on the north (the Gulf of Mexico), on the east (the Caribbean Sea), on the south and west (the Pacific Ocean). In view of that perspective, and with continued effort, we might eventually find additional clues in the text that would provide us with a glimpse of a model that has more seas than just the east sea and the west sea.

If we turn to Alma 22:32 we find that "the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward" (emphasis added). Since the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi were both in the land southward, and since they "were nearly surrounded by water," and since the only exception mentioned was a small neck of land on their north, perhaps a "sea south" is implied.

In the middle of a description of Nephite, Lamanite and former Jaredite lands, we find the words in Alma 22:30 that "it [the land Desolation] being so far northward that it came into the land which had been peopled and been destroyed, of whose bones we have spoken" (emphasis added). These bones were apparently those of the former inhabitants of "the land Desolation," who were the Jaredites. An expedition led by Limhi stumbled on to these bones in their travels to find the land of Zarahemla. The expedition traveled apparently northward from the land of Lehi-Nephi, ultimately traveling beyond the land of Zarahemla in "a land among many waters, having discovered a land which was covered with bones of men, and of beasts" (Mosiah 8:8, emphasis added) If Limhi's expedition traveled northward beyond the land of Zarahemla in a land among "many waters," perhaps a "sea north" is implied. It is interesting that in 1 Nephi 17:5 we find the following: "And we beheld the sea which we called Irreantum, which, being interpreted, is many waters" (emphasis added).

Thus, in spite of Clark's statement to the contrary, the reader does at least have allusions, if not specific references, for both a "sea south" and a "sea north."

Without disagreeing (or agreeing) with Clark's assessment of a metaphor, or delving too deeply into his taking exception to his own "guiding assumptions," all I will say is that despite the fact that his viewpoint is well reasoned, I do very much object to the idea of "shutting the door" to any other geographical interpretations within a Mesoamerican setting by his stating that "Any geography that tries to accommodate [any other viewpoint] is doomed to fail." I believe a better approach is to allow the accumulation of internal and external evidence to make it's own case. In this case there is sufficient internal evidence and external evidence (with respect to a Mesoamerican perspective) which might lead one to accept the idea that the four seas referred to in Helaman 3:8 were more than just metaphorical. [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes] [See Vol. 2, Appendix B]

Note* Lowell Bennion has written the following:

When modern science was born, its findings and methods came into sharp conflict with prevailing views of life and the world based on the Bible. The reason for this conflict was that in prescientific days, devoted souls took the Bible--the word of God--as their guide in all areas of living. References to nature were taken literally. For instance, Isaiah's statement that the Lord would "assemble the outcasts of Israel . . . from the four corners of the earth" (Isaiah 11:12) was proof that the earth was square or oblong. These readers of holy writ did not realize that its authors were religious men concerned with God and his dealings with humankind, and that references to nature were incidental to their earnest religious declarations. It was inevitable that these religious authors would refer to nature in the everyday language of their countries and culture in a prescientific age. (Lowell L. Bennion, The Book of Mormon: A Guide to Christian Living, pp. 3-4)

It is interesting to note that this phrase in Helaman 3:8 could be practically applied to Mesoamerica. While technically there is not any part of the American continent of appropriate size that is ideally surrounded by four different seas (only an island would qualify), Mesoamerica is an appropriate size for Book of Mormon lands, and it does have seas on four sides of it. It is also interesting to note that the Nephite location was referred to as an "isle of the sea" (2 Nephi 10:20). (See the commentary on Helaman 11:20) [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes] [See Vol. 2, Appendix B]

Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon: A Cultural Commentary