Could the 3 Nephi destruction described in the Book of Mormon have occurred in the Mexicali/Salton Sea area?
In what follows I look at the major destructive events in the 3rd Nephi portion of the Book of Mormon. These events occurred at the time of Christ’s crucifixion.
Overview of the destruction
In a major destructive event that lasted about three hours, the following occurred:
And there was a great and terrible destruction in the land southward. But behold, there was a more great and terrible destruction in the land northward; for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the whirlwinds, and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth — 3 Nephi 8:11–12
More specifics were given about what the destruction looked like:
Samuel the Lamanite predicted tempests at Christ’s crucifixion (Helaman 14:23) and it happened just like he said:
[T]here arose a great storm, such an one as never had been known in all the land. And there was also a great and terrible tempest…And there were exceedingly sharp lightnings, such as never had been known in all the land...And there were some who were carried away in the whirlwind; and whither they went no man knoweth, save they know that they were carried away.— 3 Nephi 8:5–6,7,16
It’s up for debate what all happened in the Book of Mormon when Christ died but everyone agrees there was a mega-quake. It is described in great detail and is unmistakeable.
This is very clear in Samuel the Lamanite’s prophecy prior to the actual events:
[T]here shall be thunderings and lightnings for the space of many hours, and the earth shall shake and tremble; and the rocks which are upon the face of this earth, which are both above the earth and beneath, which ye know at this time are solid, or the more part of it is one solid mass, shall be broken up; Yea, they shall be rent in twain, and shall ever after be found in seams and in cracks, and in broken fragments upon the face of the whole earth, yea, both above the earth and beneath. — Helaman 14:21–22
Several cities were destroyed by fire (see below).
Read Samuel’s prophesy of three days of darkness following Christ’s crucifixion:
But behold, as I said unto you concerning another sign, a sign of his death, behold, in that day that he shall suffer death the sun shall be darkened and refuse to give his light unto you; and also the moon and the stars; and there shall be no light upon the face of this land, even from the time that he shall suffer death, for the space of three days, to the time that he shall rise again from the dead. — Helaman 13:20
The occurrence of the darkness is confirmed in 3 Nephi when it actually occurred.
Six cities destroyed by fire
And the city of Zarahemla did take fire. — 3 Nephi 8:8
they were burned in that great city Zarahemla — 3 Nephi 8:24
that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof — 3 Nephi 9:3
And behold, that great city Jacobugath…have I caused to be burned with fire…therefore I did cause them to be burned. — 3 Nephi 9:9
While there is still some lack of clarity of what all occurred during the destruction, it is very clear that there was a mega-quake, and that the earthquake was the main source of destruction. It’s normal for earthquakes to cause fires because lamps and torches fall from the quaking and they light things on fire. Or a tent could fall on the torch or cook fire.
Laman, Josh, Gad, Kishkumen also burned by fire that was “sent down”
The phrase “sent down” may indicate lava bombs raining down from a volcano but it could also just be earthquake-caused fire. The Lord can send down fire that originates at a point on the ground.
And behold, the city of Laman, and the city of Josh, and the city of Gad, and the city of Kishkumen, have I caused to be burned with fire— 3 Nephi 9:10
I did send down fire and destroy them — 3 Nephi 9:11
Four cities destroyed by water
Moroni was sunk into the sea
And the city of Moroni did sink into the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof were drowned.— 3 Nephi 8:9
Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof to be drowned — 3 Nephi 9:4
A city being sunk into the sea seems pretty clear.
Water came up in place of Onihah, Mocum and Jerusalem
Yea, and the city of Onihah and the inhabitants thereof, and the city of Mocum and the inhabitants thereof, and the city of Jerusalem and the inhabitants thereof; and waters have I caused to come up in the stead thereof — 3 Nephi 9:7
A large body of water such as a river or lake may have changed direction/position due to earthquake-related shifting.
Six cities swallowed up in the earth
Moronihah was not only buried in the earth, but it was also replaced by a mountain.
[E]arth was carried up upon the city of Moronihah, that in the place of the city there became a great mountain — 3 Nephi 8:10
[T]hey were “buried up in that great city Moronihah”— 3 Nephi 8:25
Moronihah have I covered with earth, and the inhabitants thereof — 3 Nephi 9:5
Some of the statements could be consistent with a mud slide or a subduction event in which tectonic plate movement during an earthquake causes things on the surface to be sucked down into the earth. But the idea of the city being replaced by a great mountain indicates formation of a volcanic cone. This event was most likely a volcano.
On the south end of what is currently the Salton Sea, there are a series of small volcanic cones of active volcanoes that date back to the time of Christ with some of them being more recent. One of these volcanic cones could stand in the place where Moronihah once stood. Scientists keep revising their judgment of the area but it is an area of substantial geothermal energy even to this day. There are 10 geothermal plants — all within a couple of miles of each other in this area, making it the largest geothermal energy field in the continental United States.
Rock can be pushed up from below (e.g. Mount Lemon in Arizona) but that would also be a volcanic event.
Gilgal was also covered by earth.
And behold, the city of Gilgal have I caused to be sunk, and the inhabitants thereof to be buried up in the depths of the earth; — 3 Nephi 9:6
This is consistent with a landslide or subduction event in which tectonic plate movement sucked the city into the ground during an earthquake.
Gadiandi, Gadiomnah, Jacob, Gimgimno
Four more cities buried in the earth.
And behold, the city of Gadiandi, and the city of Gadiomnah, and the city of Jacob, and the city of Gimgimno, all these have I caused to be sunk, and made hills and valleys in the places thereof; and the inhabitants thereof have I buried up in the depths of the earth — 3 Nephi 9:8
Formation of hills and valleys in their stead seems to indicate subduction — tectonic plate shift during an earthquake that carried the cities into the ground.
What natural disaster(s) could cause the described destruction?
Obviously a mega-quake
Much of the carnage can be easily explained by a massive earthquake. Earthquakes can explain the shaking, thunder, deformation of the land, hills popping up, depressions forming, water changing course etc. Earthquakes also cause fires because they can knock down lamps and torches and cause flammable materials to fall on cook fires. There definitely was an earthquake — a megaquake — and all scholars seem to agree on that. It’s fairly obvious.
What’s not well-explained by an earthquake
Tempest, storms, whirlwinds, lightning, the formation of a mountain (Moronihah), and fire being “sent down” on to cities are things that are not well explained by an earthquake alone but an earthquake can actually cause volcanic activity. Earthquakes can coincide with volcanoes. Consider for example the Pacific Ocean where two continental plates are drifting apart. As they drift apart, magma comes to the surface and forms volcanoes in between the plates. That still doesn’t fully explain the storm/whirlwinds/lightning/etc. though volcanoes do cause their own lightning system and they can actually cause whirlwinds. The earthquake also doesn’t explain the thick darkness which sounds an awful lot like ash fall from a volcano.
Given that it’s the storm that showed up first, it is possible that there was a chain reaction of natural disasters that triggered each other:
- Massive hurricane hits the peninsula causing sea levels to substantially drop in some places and to raise in others
- Hurricane-caused water displacement triggers a mega-quake that was likely already close to occurring anyway due to built up pressure
- As the earth is ripped apart by the mega-quake, magma surges to the surface through loose and thin soil to manifest as volcanic activity at the surface.
- Volcanic ash fills the sky and is circulated throughout the whole area by the hurricane creating 3 days of darkness.
Summary of the destruction
We know that the destruction was much worse in the land northward (3 Nephi 8:12). Many of the destroyed cities mentioned have Gadianton robber-like names (“Kishkumen,” “Gadiandi,” “Gadiomnah”). Most of them aren’t mentioned in the earlier sections of the Book of Mormon which is very centered on three main lands (Nephi, Zarahemla and Bountiful). The destruction seems to have largely occurred to the north of Bountiful in the land Desolation.
Exceptions: the city of Zarahemla was burned (3 Nephi 8:8, 24; 9:3). Also the watery destruction of the city of Jerusalem was mentioned (3 Nephi 9:7). Jerusalem was a Lamanite city to the far south but they could have built another city, and called it Jerusalem in the land northward. That seems most likely since its destruction was lumped in with two other likely northern cities of Onihah and Mocum. Gilgal, the city that was buried in the earth (with its inhabitants) was a Jaredite term.
Gilgal valley was a location of battle between Jaredites Shared and Coriantumr (Ether 13:27–30). This implies that it was in the land Desolation — former Jaredite lands. Although the Jaredite people were destroyed prior to the area’s settlement by the Nephites, it seems clear that somehow parts of their language and place names lived on. Some people must have survived the destruction of the Jaredites. We know that another destroyed city, Jacobugath, was also in “the northernmost part of the land” (3 Nephi 7:12).
In summary, it appears that all of the destroyed cities were north of Bountiful except for the city of Zarahemla which was burned in the south.
How does this match up with the Mexicali/Salton Sea area?
Assumptions: To be clear this analysis assumes that the events of the Book of Mormon occurred on the Baja Peninsula/Southern California region. This analysis is only valid in that context.
The Mexicali/Salon Sea area is one of the most geologically active zones I can imagine. Consider the following:
- The area is an active volcanic zone with several eruptions in the past few thousand years located just to the south of the Salton Sea. Moronihah was covered with earth/replaced by a mountain and four other cities (Laman, Josh, Gad, Kishkumen) had fire sent down on them. Could be volcanic — especially Moronihaha which may have been the location where a volcanic cone shot out of the ground.
- The area is an active earthquake zone, being located on the San Andreas transform system where two massive continental plates are slowly sliding past each other in opposite directions. As far as I am aware, all scholars agree that the central event of the 3rd Nephi destruction was a mega-quake.
- The area is prone to periodic filling and drying which matches up well with the watery destruction of several cities. Shifting of the Colorado River, periodic filling and emptying of the very large Lake Cahuilla (Salton Sea is a modern, smaller version of Lake Cahuilla). Three cities (Onihah, Mocum and Jerusalem) were covered by water and their inhabitants drowned.
- The area also has coastal access on both the Pacific side and the sandy, more malleable Sea of Cortez side. Moroni was sunk into the sea.
- The southern part of the Baja Peninsula is frequently struck by massive hurricanes but a really strong hurricane would be rare in the north (San Diego area). The most likely way a hurricane could cover the whole peninsula with ash (3 days of darkness) would be for the hurricane to strike mid-peninsula. This is actually very plausible and makes a hurricane in Baja very plausible.
The Salton Sea/Mexicali area is a strong candidate for 3rd Nephi destruction, assuming that the Baja Peninsula/Southern California are is the correct region for Book of Mormon events to have taken place. The incredibly geologically active nature of the region makes it an ideal candidate to have been affected by all of the events described in 3 Nephi and Helaman 14.
About the author
Aaron Charlton studied ancient military history and pre-history at BYU as an undergraduate. He also served as an air defense officer and an infantry officer in the U.S. Army with deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. This model is based on his military and history background and attempts to match the geography up to what is described in the Book of Mormon as closely as possible.