Refuting the errors of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland hoax

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Jonathan Neville’s obsession with “conformity”

Among his many obsessions, Jonathan Neville holds to the odd belief that “M2C* intellectuals” demand “conformity” from other Latter-day Saints—in other words, he thinks that someone is insisting that he accept that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica and that the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon is not the same hill as the one in western New York.

For example, in his July 26, 2021, blog post, “conformity and the LDS intellectual cartels” [sic], he quotes The Wall Street Journal’s criticism of the scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic:
Increasing numbers of scientists “seem to fall prey to groupthink, and the process of peer-reviewing and publishing allows dogmatic gate-keeping to get in the way of new ideas and open-minded challenge.”
There may, of course, be something to the Journal’s critique. The period of the pandemic has been filled with examples of people with ideas outside of “mainstream science” being ridiculed and even “canceled” from social networks. The pandemic very quickly became politicized, and it remains politicized.

What any of that has to do with Book of Mormon geography is beyond me, however. Mesoamerican theorists don’t and can’t require any kind of “conformity” to their views. They even disagree among themselves about the specifics of various locations mentioned in the Book of Mormon. They don’t control what the Brethren teach on this subject, and the Brethren have clearly indicated that “the Church does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas.”

Neville may mistakenly believe that the rejection of articles about the Heartland theory by mainstream scholarly Latter-day Saint publications is a call for “conformity,” when the reality is those articles are routinely rejected because they lack even basic scientific or scholarly rigor. When you make claims based in pseudoscience, forged artifacts, and dubious anthropology, you’re not going to be published by reputable journals. That’s not conformity; that’s good scholarship.

The irony in all of this is that it’s actully Heartlanders who insist on “conformity.”

One example of this is how Rian Nelson, who runs the FIRM Foundation’s, today insisted that I provide answers to his list of 17 questions as an obvious test of my doctrinal orthodoxy or heresy. (I didn’t take the bait.)

Another example is this strikingly unfunny cartoon by Heartlander Val Chadwick Bagley, posted under “Fun Stuff” on Jonathan Neville’s website, Moroni’s America: It’s long been said that there’s a grain of truth in every joke. The grain of truth here is that Heartlanders would, if they had the power, require every Latter-day Saints to affirm his or her belief in a single hill Cumorah in order to receive a temple recommend.

True “conformity” at its most grim and unyielding.

—Peter Pan
* “M2C” is Jonathan Neville’s acronym for the theory that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica and that the hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon is not the same hill in New York where Joseph Smith received the plates of Mormon.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Rian Nelson rejects charges of Heartlander apostasy

Although the primary focus of this blog is the writings of Jonathan Neville, I’ve also on occasion been critical of his fellow travelers in the Heartland movement, most notably Rian Nelson and Rodney Meldrum of the FIRM Foundation (the “Foundation for Indigenous Research and Mormonism Foundation”).

Meldrum’s organization produces books, DVDs, and articles in support of the Heartland theory of Book of Mormon geography. They also put on a semiannual expo with a large slate of speakers and presenters, most of whom are amateurs with no credentials in the subjects on which they present.

Among other responsibilities, Rian Nelson maintains the FIRM Foundation’s blog and Facebook page. His posts in these two outlets frequently appeal to bizarre conspiracy theories, including material about QAnon, globalist cabals, and anti-vaccination tirades. He also appeals to vaguely racist notions of the United States being in danger of being “overrun” by “illegal immigrants” from south of the border.

On July 20, 2021, Nelson took issue with this blog’s claim that he and other Heartlanders are on a “long slide into apostasy.” In his post “An Absurd Character Assassination From a Meso-Blogger called Peter Pan,” he claims that I “[get their] position very wrong.”

I reprint Nelson’s response with his usual spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors unchanged:
“I wish Peter and his Pan would fess up to his secrecy. What is he hiding? I personally put up the quote above from Pres Benson last Feb. It fit perfectly into my feelings that many in the church even the very elect will be deceived. My mind has never been on the General Authorities or leadership of the church although some GA’s have led some astray in the past. The Brethren are NOT leading anyone into apostacy and they are men who I and all those at the firm foundation love and respect. Please

President Nelson and the Apostles are wonderful men and lead and guide the Lord’s true Church. I have always felt as has Rod or any other person associated with the FIRM Foundation that we love and follow the Lord through His Apostles and Prophets. Mr. Peter Pan is lying and it is not right to promote such slander. If any of you reading this post decide to email him please be nice and loving as we don’t want to treat others as he is treating us.

We advise our Heartland supporters and all people to be kind to those of other Apologetic groups just as we should be kind to all of God’s children. We are simply requesting an honest treatment from these other groups and find some way of working together to build the Lord’s Kingdom and share Christ together with the world.” Rian Nelson
Allow me to remind our readers what Nelson’s original claim was. On February 17, 2020, he posted the following on the FIRM Foundation Facebook page: (Note: The date of Ezra Taft Benson’s BYU address was October 25, 1966, not 1996.)

Nelson protests, “My mind has never been on the General Authorities or leadership of the church although some GA’s have led some astray in the past. The Brethren are NOT leading anyone into apostacy [sic] and they are men who I and all those at the firm foundation [sic] love and respect.”

But does Nelson read the things that he writes? His Facebook post began with the question-begging assumption, “For those concerned how this occultic ‘Joseph Smith’ could make its way into Church publications.…” In other words, according to Rian Nelson of the FIRM Foundation, Church publications are teaching an “occultic” version of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

I, for one, would never claim that Church manuals and other publications are perfect or without error, but Nelson’s claim goes far beyond simple mistakes. Since Church publications are produced by committees headed by general authorities and general authorities provide the final review and approval for all Church publications, any claim that these publications present an “occultic Joseph Smith” ultimately means that general authorities are leading the Church into apostasy, as I claimed Nelson had asserted.

And this is just one example of Heartlander comments that flirt with apostasy or explicitly advocate for apostate ideas and actions. Like Rian Nelson, Jonathan Neville has also accused the Church of printing false doctrine and even anti-Mormon material in its publications. (See here, here, and here.) I’ve collected dozens of examples of this behavior over the two-and-a-half years this blog has been operating; anyone is free to examine what I’ve written and decide for themselves whether or not the Heartland movement is potentially dangerous to the faith of the Saints.

In the meantime, Rian Nelson’s protests fall quite flat, for he did indeed directly imply what he claims he didn’t.

—Peter Pan

Friday, July 16, 2021

Spencer Kraus challenges Neville’s translation theories

At the end of 2020 I became acquainted with Spencer Kraus and his excellent blog. (I’ve mentioned both of them before—see here, here, and here.) I’m grateful that he has joined the ranks of Latter-day Saints who are pushing back against Jonathan Neville’s devisive and unorthodox beliefs.

This week, Kraus published a review of three of Neville’s assertions, namely:

  1. That Joseph Smith was always separated from his scribes by a curtain, with Oliver Cowdery being the exception to this practice.
  2. That Joseph only used a seer stone as a “demonstration” of the translation process.
  3. That Oliver Cowdery wrote his series of letters in 1834 to show that Joseph Smith did not use a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon.

In response to Neville’s claims, Kraus ably shows that:

  1. The eyewitness evidence indicates that Joseph and his scribes were separated from other people in the same room by a curtain, and that Joseph was only veiled from his scribes when he used the Urim and Thummim, not when he used his seer stone.
  2. Neville’s “demonostration hypothesis” fails because the source Neville relies on—David Whitmer—explictly said that, at that the event, Joseph was using the Urim and Thummim, not a seer stone.
  3. Rather than rejecting Joseph’s use of a seer stone, Oliver Cowdery’s 1834 letters are best interpreted as “reclaiming the narrative” from the anti-Mormon book, Mormonism Unvailed, by using the term “Urim and Thummim” as a term for all translation instruments.

Bilbo's pocket Throughout his blog post, Kraus identifies how Neville “misquotes and misuses historical sources to attempt to paint a history that exists only in his imagination.” Just one example of this is how Neville has claimed that Oliver Cowdery “had [Joseph’s] little seer stone, the brown seer stone we see pictures of, in his pocket when he rejoined the Church.” Kraus hasn’t found a single source for this claim; he therefore concludes that “this detail comes directly from Neville’s imagination.”

I warmly recommend Kraus’s recent review to all readers of this blog.

—Peter Pan

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Heartlanders and “rejecting the teachings of the prophets”

Heartlanders continually and emphatically assert that people who don’t believe the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon is in New York are “rejecting the teachings of the prophets.” (Jonathan Neville has made that very claim hundreds of times.)

And yet it is becoming abundantly clear that it is Heartlanders who are rejecting the teachings of living prophets. For example, they insist upon claiming that their geographical theories have prophetic support (contrary to the explicit counsel of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve), and they reject the teachings of apostles in General Conference about the identification of modern descendants of Lehi.

In just the latest example of Heartlanders rejecting the counsel of Church leaders, Rod Meldrum’s September 2021 FIRM Foundation EXPO has at least one speaker on the schedule who practices and advocates for “energy healing”: The program also features Angie Christensen, who the FIRM Foundation once described as a “certified neurofeedback and energy healer,” but for this conference has been demoted, I suppose, to someone who has simply “been trained in” neurofeedback and energy therapy.

Apparently, Meldrum hasn’t gotten the memo from Church leaders:
Church members are discouraged from seeking miraculous or supernatural healing from an individual or group that claims to have special methods for accessing healing power outside of prayer and properly performed priesthood blessings. These practices are often referred to as “energy healing.” Other names are also used. Such promises for healing are often given in exchange for money.
This counsel was issued seven months ago, so there’s been plenty of time for Meldrum and the FIRM Foundation to distance themselves from the “energy healing” grifters who are so closely tied to the Heartland movement.

The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Meldrum doesn’t want to distance himself and his organization from those people, because there is money to be made.

—Peter Pan

Thursday, June 24, 2021

President Joseph F. Smith warned against “gospel hobbies”

Joseph F. Smith served as sixth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1901 until his death in 1918. He was a magnificent expounder of gospel principles, and he taught with clarity and plainess.

In the March 15, 1902, edition of Juvenile Instructor, the magazine for youth published by the Deseret Sunday School Union, President Smith warned of what he called “gospel hobbies.” (See pp. 176–177.)

Almost 120 years later, President Smith’s warning seems particularly applicable to the Heartland movement in general and Jonathan Neville in particular. I reprint it in full below:
President Joseph F. Smith 1901Brethren and sisters, don’t have hobbies. Hobbies are dangerous in the Church of Christ. They are dangerous because they give undue prominence to certain principles or ideas to the detriment and dwarfing of others just as important, just as binding, just as saving as the favored doctrines or commandments.

Hobbies give to those who encourage them a false aspect of the Gospel of the Redeemer; they distort and place out of harmony its principles and teachings. The point of view is unnatural. Every principle and practice revealed from God is essential to man’s salvation, and to place any one of them unduly in front, hiding and dimming all others is unwise and dangerous; it jeopardizes our salvation, for it darkens our minds and beclouds our understandings.

We have known good men and good women who appeared to think, if they may be judged by their actions and conversation, that the all absorbing doctrine of the Church was the healing of the sick, or the law of tithing, or the Word of Wisdom, or the gift of tongues. Before this one doctrine or gift all things else connected with the plan of salvation were but secondary. Such a view, no matter to what point directed, narrows the vision, weakens the spiritual perception, and darkens the mind, the result of which is that the person thus afflicted with this perversity and contraction of mental vision places himself in a position to be tempted of the evil one, or through dimness of sight or distortion of vision, to misjudge his brethren and give way to the spirit of apostasy. He is not square before the Lord.

We have noticed this difficulty: that Saints with hobbies are prone to judge and condemn their brethren and sisters who are not so zealous in the one particular direction of their pet theory as they are. The man with the Word of Wisdom only in his brain, is apt to find unmeasured fault with every other member of the Church who entertains liberal ideas as to the importance of other doctrines of the Gospel. We simply mention the Word of Wisdom to exemplify our idea, not that we would in the least minimize the importance of its observance. But we hold that it is possible for a man to abstain, rigidly and completely, from all things forbidden in that revelation and yet be sadly lacking in charity towards the brethren, zeal towards God, and faith in His holy work.

There is another phase of this difficulty—the man with a hobby is apt to assume an “I am holier than thou” position, to feel puffed up and conceited, and to look with distrust, if with no severer feeling, on his brethren and sisters who do not so perfectly live that one particular law. This feeling hurts his fellow-servants and offends the Lord. “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov. 16:18.)

There are some great truths in the plan of redemption that are fundamental. They cannot be ignored; none others can be placed before them. The fatherhood of God, the efficacy of the atonement of our Lord and Savior, the restoration of the Gospel in these latter days, must be accepted with our whole hearts. We cannot compensate for a lack of faith in these essential doctrines by the most absolute abstinence from things unhealthful, by the rigid payment of tithing on our “anise and cummin” [Matthew 23:23], or by the observance of any other outward ordinance. Baptism itself without faith in God avails nothing.

Then let none of us become so zealous in any principle or law of God that, in our minds, any one part of the Gospel grows to be as large, or to fill the place of the entire plan of salvation. No one part is ever equal to the whole. If we permit ourselves to thus misjudge we shall lose the comprehension of the due relationship of the things of God, and be in a condition to be unable to discern between truth and error, right and wrong, when the adversary of our souls conspires for our destruction.

Joseph F. Smith
I can easily imagine President Smith today warning the Saints who have embraced the Heartland movement that they have become “prone to judge and condemn their brethren and sisters who are not so zealous in the one particular direction of their pet theory as they are,” and placed themselves “in a position to be tempted of the evil one, or through dimness of sight or distortion of vision, to misjudge [their] brethren and give way to the spirit of apostasy.”

I would not apply President Smith’s teachings in this way if it were not the sad and obvious truth. For over six years now, Jonathan Neville has continually published and blogged and spoken, with single-minded focus, on his insistence that the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon is in New York, that the editorials about Book of Mormon lands in Central America published under Joseph Smith’s name were written by a conspirator who sought to destroy Joseph, and that Joseph used only the Urim and Thummim and never used a seer stone to translate. All this while, he has written in condemnation of Church employees, Church scholars, and others who have questioned his evidence and rejected his conclusions.

His gospel hobby, if not abandoned, will result in his loss of faith in the leaders of the Church. And I fear that many who follow him will experience the same loss.

—Peter Pan

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Just because something is new does not make it correct

Jonathan Neville frequently blogs about “new information” and the resistance most people naturally have to changing their minds in light of new understanding.

Generally speaking, he’s right about this. Most people, when presented with new ideas, cling to and justify their existing beliefs. Human beings prefer to have their beliefs confirmed rather than challenged. When we confront convincing evidence that challenges our views, we go through a period of cognitive dissonance—a state of discomfort that exists while we struggle to reconcile two competing beliefs that both seem correct.

Where Neville is mistaken, though, is in assuming that his heterodox views about the translation of the Book of Mormon, the nature of the gold plates, and the geography of the Book of Mormon are rejected by the majority of Latter-day Saint scholars and informed members simply because they are new and not because they are wrong.

For example, on June 22, 2021, Neville published to his Book of Mormon Consensus blog a post entitled “Going forward because something has changed.” His brief blog entry is a repost from someone else’s blog; that author wrote:
People don’t say yes or change their minds because you persist.

That’s because we don’t like to admit we were wrong.

If we’re going to go forward, it’s because something has changed. It might be that our situation is different, that the story we tell ourselves is different, that the times have changed or that your offering has. It might be that we trust you more.
I believe that Neville continually reposts and retweets this kind of stuff because he genuinely believes that the Heartland view is a serious challenge to the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography and the holistic view of Church history that includes Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone to translate scripture. In Neville’s mind, his theories have been rejected simply because Church scholars and other members are unwilling to consider alternative viewpoints.

This is, of course, where he’s gone wrong. The assertions of Heartlanders like Neville haven’t been rejected because they’re new; they’ve been rejected because they are based on selective evidence, flawed interpretation, motivated readings of scripture, and conspiracy theories. (See, for example, reviews of Neville’s work here, here, and here, along with this critical review of the Heartlander-published edition of the Book of Mormon.)

Barney Stinson How I Met Your Mother new is always better Then there’s the issue of Neville’s pattern of deception in advancing his views. Simply put, he and other Heartlanders have a hard time telling the truth.

New is not always better, correct, or preferable. New ideas must be examined and tested. If they better explain the evidence—all the evidence, not just selected pieces of it—then most honest people will embrace them. This is unlikely to happen with the Heartland theory as long as it continues to be rooted in its flawed and dishonest approaches to history, scripture, and science.

—Peter Pan

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Jonathan Neville, proper names, and the use of ad hominem

Every once in a while, Jonathan Neville admits to the existence of this blog. He doesn’t engage with any of the arguments I make or answer any of the questions I raise (except one halfhearted attempt, long ago); he simply complains that I’m being mean to him.

The latest example of this may be found in the June 21, 2021, post “Proper names” on his InterpreterPeerReviews blog. This post is significant enough that I reproduce it in full, below, with my responses and commentary.
I often hear from people who think I’m too nice toward certain LDS [sic] scholars. For example, some people wonder why I avoid the full names of people named Dan.
I wonder who these people Neville “often” hears from who think he’s “too nice” to other Latter-day Saints he disagrees with. I don’t consider it “nice,” for example, to accuse “Dan”—i.e., Daniel Peterson—of using anti-Mormon claims from the first anti-Mormon book in the movie Witnesses and of purposely stirring up controversy in order to generate additional donations for the Interpreter Foundation, as Neville did recently.

In the two-and-a-half years of this blog’s existence, I’ve documented numerous examples of Jonathan Neville not being “nice” to other Latter-day Saints, both scholars and leaders. One can readily use the Tags section in each blog post to see examples of Neville using ad hominem arguments, misrepresenting others’ views, being dishonest, and flirting with apostasy. To the best of my knowledge, neither he nor anyone else has responded to these examples and demonstrated where I’ve been wrong or distorted the facts.

(For the record, I welcome any and all such responses, and I will even gladly post them on this blog, if anyone cares to write something.)
A few years ago, I reached an agreement with certain LDS [sic] scholars (not including Dan) that I wouldn’t use their full names in my blog posts because the back-and-forth comes up in [G]oogle searches and could reflect on their careers. I agreed because I don’t think a focus on individuals should be part of the discussion.
I don’t know when, where, or how this supposed “agreement” took place, but I was not there and not a part of it. (That’s not because I’m secretly Daniel Peterson—I’m not, as I’ve repeatedly been forced to insist.)

I don’t believe that anyone should avoid using the complete name of someone whose writings they are criticizing just to be “nice.” If Jonathan Neville is going to put his name on his books and his websites, then people should be able to find responses to his claims by searching online for his name. It’s not like he has an academic career to protect.

If I were suspicious, I’d infer from his statement that Neville was trying to prevent people from discovering criticisms of his work.
Plus, I genuinely like, respect and admire most LDS scholars.

I write about issues, facts, and arguments.
Yes, he truly “likes, respects, and admires” people who disagree with him. These individuals are “usurpers of the prophets” and followers of Satan (as he has claimed), they “erase Church history for ideological reasons” (as he has claimed), they use censorship to distort the historical record (as he has claimed), they are “causing people to lose faith in the Book of Mormon” (as he has claimed), and they “reject the teachings of the prophets” (as he has claimed hundreds of times).

Other than those examples—and many more—Neville is all about “issues, facts, and arguments.”
Dan, however, has long focused on ad hominem arguments. That’s a last resort for those who cannot make rational, fact-based arguments. Not surprisingly, he repeatedly uses my name in his blog, preferring that over focusing on the issues.
How dare Daniel Peterson respond to Neville by name when Neville attacks him! The sheer audacity of such a thing! {sarc}

The ironic thing is that Neville, by attacking Peterson’s supposed ad hominem arguments while not giving a single example of these arguments, is himself making an ad hominem argument.
His favorite anonymous blog, to which he refers frequently, specializes in ad hominem, to the point where the blog itself uses my name in its title.
Neville is, of course, referring to this humble blog (which is pseudonymous, not anonymous).

While I legitimately try to refrain from ad hominem arguments, I fully admit that some may have slipped through here and there. (This is one example of a post that I regret.) I welcome any corrections and will gladly even guest-post them, as I mentioned above.

It is not ad hominem to use Neville’s name as a pun in the title of this blog. Neville appears to making the common error of confusing sarcasm, wit, and poking fun at one’s opponent with an actual ad hominem fallacy, in which the person ignores his opponent’s argument entirely and attacks his person instead.

(I posted this example of an ad hominem fallacy last year, but Neville doesn’t appear to actually read this blog; he just rails against it for its many supposed sins.)
In any legitimate academic field, such tactics would be rejected out of hand, but among LDS [sic] apologists, this is business as usual.

This is among the reasons why LDS [sic] apologetics has earned its reputation for deplorable tactics, logical and factual fallacies, and overall absurdity. These apologists do more to drive people away from the Church than the critics do.

We can expect more of the same, of course. These apologists aren’t about to change course after decades of doing this.
Daniel C. Peterson
Daniel C. Peterson, the Meanest Man in Mormonism®
Neville is, of course, making the same tired argument that critics of Daniel Peterson and other people at the (now defunct) Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies have been making for thirty years. Peterson and his colleagues often accompanied their devastating reviews of anti-Mormon and bad pro-Mormon scholarship with incisive wit, for which they were regularly accused of being “mean and nasty.” I was a regular reader of those early FARMS publications, and I clearly recall Peterson fending off such accusations. (See, for example, Peterson’s editor’s introduction to Review of Books on the Book of Mormon vol. 4; Peterson’s essay “Text and Context” in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon vol. 6, no. 1, esp. pp. 534–536; and George L. Mitton’s editor’s introduction to The FARMS Review vol. 16, no. 1, esp. pp. xiii–xiv.)

As it was then, so it is now: Neville has repeated the well-worn tropes about Daniel Peterson’s supposed “deplorable tactics” and how his writings “drive people away from the Church,” all the while refusing to give a single example of where Peterson’s arguments have failed (or that he even made an argument to begin with).

Neville’s outcry will certainly play well with John Dehlin, Jeremy Runnells, and other ex-Mormon haters. Neville has attacked defenders of the gospel and defended its attackers before, so his repeated attempted assassinations of Daniel Peterson’s character are to be expected.
Now you “know why” I focus on issues instead of people.
Except you don’t, Mr. Neville. You regularly write petty, awful things about good and decent scholars who don’t happen to agree with your heterodox views. It’s not enough for you to simply make a counterargument; you insist on continually claiming bad faith among your ideological opponents.

If this blog accomplishes only one thing, I hope that is to provide a record of Jonathan Neville’s disgusting behavior. That way, after he and other Heartlanders have apostasized from The Church of Jesus Christ and formed their own fundamentalist cult, people will be able to look back at the enormous pile of accumulated evidence and say, “Of course—we should have seen it coming all along.”

—Peter Pan

Monday, June 21, 2021

Jonathan Neville is simply disingenuous

The short version:

Jonathan Neville accused Daniel Peterson of using anti-Mormon claims in the Witnesses film and keeping controversy going because it “generate[s] donations.”

Daniel Peterson took issue with both claims and (correctly) said that Neville was accusing him of priestcraft.

Side-Eying Chloe GIF Neville’s response? “I didn't accuse Dan of anything.”

How Neville can claim that publicly and sleep at night is simply beyond me.

—Peter Pan

Monday, June 14, 2021

My reaction to Witnesses

Tiger Lily and I finally took the opportunity to see the new film Witnesses tonight. It is very, very good, and I highly recommend it to all my readers.
Perhaps the film’s only flaw was that it didn’t include a depiction of Oliver Cowdery’s experience of seeing an angel who told him that the hill Cumorah in New York was the final battleground of the Nephites and who commanded him, in the name of God, to write Letter VII.

4/5 stars.


—Peter Pan

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Neville’s Book of Mormon geography makes no sense, part 2

Over a year ago, I posted the first in a series of articles critiquing Jonathan Neville’s proposed geography of the Book of Mormon. This is my long-delayed second entry in that series.

The river Sidon

The river Sidon is a signficiant geographic feature in the Book of Mormon. It played a prominent role in several battles described in the book of Alma, including the Amlicite War (Alma 2) and Captain Moroni’s defense of Manti against the Lamanite forces (Alma 4344).

The river Sidon ran on a north/south axis through the land of Zarahemla, and the great city of Zarahemla was situated on its west bank (Alma 6:7). The head of the river was near the Nephite land of Manti, which itself was near the border between Nephites on the north and the Lamanites on the south (Alma 22:27, 29; 43:22; 50:11). The Sidon flowed into the sea (Alma 3:3; 44:22; although which sea the text does not say).

On the facts above, there is no dispute between Heartlanders and Mesoamericanists. The major point of disagreement between the two groups concerns the direction in which the river Sidon flowed and, hence, the meaning of the word head.

The direction of the river Sidon

Detail from Lands of the Book of Mormon map by Rian Nelson and Jonathan Neville
Jonathan Neville’s fantasy map of the southernly course of the river Sidon
The Heartland theory of Book of Mormon geography is based largely on starting with a conclusion—that the events of the Book of Mormon took place inside the modern boundaries of the United States of America—and then working backwards from there to force the evidence to fit into the predetermined narrative. The direction of the river Sidon is just one example of this: Since Heartlanders insist—per their tortured interpretation of D&C 125:3—that the ancient city of Zarahemla must have been on the western bank of the Mississippi River, across from modern Nauvoo, Illinois, then the Mississippi River must be the Sidon.

The Book of Mormon identifies the “head” of the Sidon as being near the land of Manti, in the borders between Nephite and Lamanite lands (Alma 22:27; 43:22). Lamanite lands (and therefore Manti) were south of the city of Zarahemla (Alma 16:6; 50:7). The common definition of “head,” as it pertains to a river or stream, is its source or origin; that is how Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defines it. (See def. 18.) If the head of the Sidon is south of the city of Zarahemla, then the Sidon must have flowed north past Zarahemla. This presents a problem to the Heartland geography, since the Mississippi River flows south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Jonathan Neville and other Heartlanders have tried to get around this obvious problem by claiming that “head,” as it pertains to the Sidon, doesn’t mean origin or source, but rather refers to a confluence, where two rivers come together. They base this claim on Webster’s 23rd definition of head, which is “body; conflux,” and then cross-referencing his definition of conflux, “a flowing together; a meeting of two or more currents of a fluid” (def. 1). Therefore, according to Heartlanders, the head of the Sidon was not its source; it was the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, downstream from Zarahemla and Manti.

Why a south-flowing Sidon is impossible

As with many other claims made by Heartlanders, this one is too clever by half.

The most obvious problem with it, as other critics of the Heartland theory have rightly pointed out, is that the Book of Mormon itself defines the head of a river as the place “from whence it came” (1 Nephi 8:13–14).

Another significant obstacle to Heartlanders’ claims is that a close reading of the Book of Mormon clearly demonstrates that the land of Manti was higher in elevation than the land (and city) of Zarahemla:

  • “And now it came to pass that as Alma was journeying from the land of Gideon southward, away to the land of Manti, behold, to his astonishment, he met with the sons of Mosiah journeying [in the opposite direction, i.e, north] towards the land of Zarahemla” (Alma 17:1). I’ve already established that Manti was south of Zarahemla, and Heartlanders do not dispute this. I mention it again because it’s important to understanding the next point.

  • “And Alma returned and said unto them: Behold, the Lamanites will cross the river Sidon in the south wilderness, away up beyond the borders of the land of Manti” (Alma 16:6). The Book of Mormon is rigorously consistent in its uses of up and down to refer to elevation, not compass directions. It always describes people traveling from the Nephite-held land of Zarahemla “up to the land of Nephi” where the Lamanites dwelt (e.g., Mosiah 7:2, 4, 9:3; 20:7; 28:1, 5; 29:3; Alma 17:8; 20:2; 24:20; 26:23; 29:14), and it also always describes people traveling from the land of Nephi “down to the land of Zarahemla” (e.g., Alma 27:5; 51:11; 57:15–16, 28, 30; Helaman 1:17).

  • That Manti was higher in elevation than Zarahemla is further demonstrated in Helaman’s epistle to Captain Moroni, in which he mentioned the land of Manti among the lands the Lamanites had captured (Alma 56:13–14). Helaman told Moroni that, from these strategic vantage points, the Lamanites dared not “march down against the city of Zarahemla; neither durst they cross the head of Sidon, over to the city of Nephihah” (Alma 56:25). Here again we see, in the plainest of readings, that Manti was higher in elevation than Zarahemla, and that nearby was the head or source of the river Sidon.


Since the lands of Manti and Nephi in the south were higher in elevation than the land of Zarahemla in the north, any river that ran through both lands would have to run in a northward direction from higher to lower elevation—unless, of course, Heartlanders wish us to believe that the laws of physics operated differently in Book of Mormon times.

Since the river Sidon ran from south to north, it therefore could not have been the Mississippi River, which runs from north to south.

This is another considerable problem with the Heartland theory of Book of Mormon geography. Heartlanders claim that “it just makes sense” that the Book of Mormon took place in the Midwestern region of the United States. It can only “make sense,” though, if one does not pay attention to the text of the Book of Mormon.

—Peter Pan

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