Why don’t we know where the Book of Mormon took place?
The Book of Mormon does not claim to be a secular history book or a geography book. It only claims to give an accurate account of some events of spiritual significance that happened to real people who lived in both the Old and New Worlds. In that process there are places and people that are named. If modern researchers find historical or archaeological evidences that these people or places actually existed in the general areas that are claimed in the Book of Mormon, that would obviously add credibility to its claims. Especially if these were unknown at the time of its first publication. It is impossible, however, to build a rational case against the Book of Mormon based on the inability to identify such locations by the same names in modern time.
Many critics of the church like to portray the Book of Mormon as competing with the Bible. They feel that belief in the Book of Mormon somehow diminishes the importance of the Bible. These feelings often set up an unrealistic comparison between the two sacred volumes.They insist, for example, that if the Book of Mormon was a true historical account, like the Bible, the cities and places it names in the Americas would be as easily identified today as are the locations mentioned in the Bible in the Old World.
There are several problems with this reasoning because it relies on many false assumptions. One idea that must be accepted to make this reasoning work is that since many of the locations in the Bible are known by the same names today, legitimizes the stories in it to be actual historical occurrences and not fiction. If you believe that, you would also have to believe that it is impossible to write an historical fictional story involving ancient places with names known to us today.
Also, in assuming that places like Zarahemla should be as easy to locate as a place in the Bible like Jerusalem, assumes that modern archaeologists know all the actual ancient names of all the ancient cities in the world. They ignore the fact that there are some regions in the world have been inhabited by multiple civilizations over hundreds of years. As one group conquers the other it is not unusual for names of places to be changed and even attempts to try and erase any remaining evidence of the previous culture.
These critics also forget that some cultures do not have a tradition of keeping written histories. Some such groups may have a small number of their people who pass on oral histories of their ancestors. What happens when those people are killed by the conquering group? Then add to that little complication the fact that in many cases the same thing happens years later to the conquering group and then again to the next conquering group and so on. It is easy to see how names and customs can become completely lost to history.
An important omission by these critics is the fact that the Book of Mormon story begins in the Middle East. This is a region of the world where, probably more than any other region, many ancient names of locations have survived till today. In fact, many of the details mentioned in the Book of Mormon about this region were not known to Joseph Smith, but are known to us today. There is nothing that we know about this region today that conflicts in any way with what is in the Book of Mormon. However, as the video points out, there are some very profound things that have been recently discovered that support the Book of Mormon story, which would have been unknown or even counterintuitive to Joseph Smith in his day.