Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Monday, February 18, 2019

Neville’s misdirection and prevarication

Jonathan Neville frequently misleads his readers by the way he frames the argument. He seems unwilling or unable to concede that those who disagree with him are not malicious or stupid. Rather than stating an argument as his opponents do and then responding to it, he tells us what he thinks their argument is. (This is the Strawman Fallacy.)

Here are some examples of this pernicious behavior from Neville’s February 18, 2019, blog post, “The M2C hoax”:
M2C* is taken for granted by most intellectuals in the Church. Because they’ve been teaching it through CES and BYU for decades, it has become prevalent throughout the Church, through the academic cycle.
How does Neville know that “most intellectuals” believe the Mesoamerican Book of Mormon geography because they “take it for granted”? Has he conducted any surveys about this? Or is he simply practicing in mind-reading? Clearly it’s the latter—from his point of view, the only way someone could believe a Mesoamerican Book of Mormon is because they’re uninformed (stupid) or part of a conspiracy to hide the truth (evil). Neville needs his readers to agree with him that no honest person could read and accept the evidence presented by John L. Sorenson and other faithful LDS scholars that points to a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon.
M2C frames Joseph Smith as an ignorant speculator who misled the Church about the New York Cumorah. . . . For Church members, it is hard to believe all of these Church leaders, including members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference, would mislead the Church.
Neville makes this false claim constantly in his blog posts. Those who believe in a Mesoammerican Book of Mormon setting, he tells us, think that Joseph Smith was “ignorant” and that he and other general authorities “misled the Church” by teaching that the hill in New York is the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon.

It’s impossible for him, it seems, to conceive of the possibility that Joseph Smith—in addition to being a prophet—was also a man who had interpretations and opinions about things that had not been revealed. Joseph Smith himself taught that “a prophet is not always a prophet,” but Neville doesn’t believe him. He seems determined to be right about his beliefs about Book of Mormon geography, and for him to be right Joseph Smith and other Church leaders who have spoken about the New York location of the hill Cumorah must have been speaking from inerrant inspiration—even though there is no evidence at all that the Lord has ever given any such revelation.
M2C proponents claim that the New York Cumorah is “hard to believe” because there is no evidence that 230,000+ people died there in one battle.
For those who hold to the Mesoamerican geography, the number of battle deaths at Cumorah is secondary to the main evidence against the New York location: It simply doesn’t fit into the Book of Mormon’s description of the hill. The Book of Mormon tells us that Cumorah (also called Ramah) was in the land northward where the Jaredites lived (north of the narrow neck of land), near the east sea (Ether 14:26; 15:11). The hill near the Smith family home in New York does not fit this description.
Most Church members who are aware of the teachings of the prophets and apostles about the New York Cumorah accept those teachings and can’t believe anyone takes the two-Cumorahs theory seriously. They just can’t see Joseph Smith and other Church leaders misleading the Church about the New York Cumorah.
Again, how does Neville know this? Has he conducted any research into the beliefs of Church members? Has he done any polling or surveys? The answer is no—he believes what he has written, therefore it must be true.
The statement in Letter VII that it is a fact that the New York Cumorah is the same as described in Mormon 6:6 has a very simple, ordinary explanation: Joseph and Oliver personally visited the depository of Nephite records in that hill, so they knew it was the Cumorah of which Mormon wrote.
Neville does not (and likely cannot) demonstrate that Oliver Cowdery’s identification of the New York hill as the Book of Mormon Cumorah was based on revelation instead of interpretation.

He also overlooks the historical problems of the “cave full of plates” experience.
Plus, Joseph told his parents that Moroni called the hill Cumorah even before he got the plates. Before the Book of Mormon was completely translated, David Whitmer encountered one of the Three Nephites who was taking the Harmony plates to “Cumorah.”
These claims have the same historical problems as the cave experience—the statements were not contemporaneous to the events they claimed to describe, but were given decades later. As my blog post linked in the preceding paragraph explains, memories of events in the distant past are not very reliable and are treated with caution by legitimate historians.
The most ordinary explanation for the anonymous Times and Seasons articles is that they were speculation by people (i) who didn’t know from personal experience where Book of Mormon events took place, (ii) who were eager to promote evidence for the book, and (iii) who never contemplated the idea that their speculation would later be interpreted as a rejection of the New York Cumorah. The most likely candidates as authors who shared these characteristics are Benjamin Winchester, William Smith (who was actually editing the paper), and W.W. Phelps, who assisted as editor.
Neville’s conspiracy theory falls apart, however, when one considers that Joseph Smith read with interest John L. Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan and believed that it supported the testimony of the Book of Mormon. Joseph said so himself in a letter he dictated that was written by John Taylor, who acted as his scribe. Shortly after that letter was drafted, Joseph became editor of the Times and Seasons and the editorials Neville dismisses were published under his editorship.

(Perhaps, in addition to Winchester, William Smith, and Phelps, apostle and future Church president John Taylor also wanted to throw Joseph under the bus!)
The proponents of M2C believe what Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer said about their experiences except with regard to the New York Cumorah.
Neville really seems to believe that the situation is that starkly black and white. Joseph was always right or he was always wrong, according to Neville, our hyper-fundamentalist guide. Everything Joseph said that Neville agrees with must have come from revelation, or Neville’s theories fall apart. This is the lens through which Neville perceives the Book of Mormon.
M2C intellectuals reject Letter VII’s statement that it is a fact that Cumorah is in New York, but they accept Oliver’s statements of fact in those same letters regarding the restoration of the Priesthood, Moroni’s visit to Joseph Smith, the stone box that contained the plates, etc. They accept David Whitmer’s statements about what he observed, except for his statements about the messenger taking the plates to Cumorah. They accept the accounts of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Wilford Woodruff, except regarding the visit of Joseph and Oliver to the repository in Cumorah. They accept Lucy Mack Smith’s personal history, except for what she recorded about Cumorah.
Again, Neville fails perceive the important distinctions between eyewitness testimonies and secondhand accounts, between revelation and personal beliefs, between contemporary statements and late recollections. For Neville, everything any authority said must be inspired and true . . . unless it disagrees with Neville’s theories of Book of Mormon geography, in which case they have to be explained away as conspiracies to undermine the leadership of the Church.
The reason the intellectuals reject the statements of Joseph, Oliver and David is because they, the experts, claim special expertise regarding the Hill Cumorah.
Jonathan Neville certainly wants his readers to believe that, even though it isn’t true.
The main expertise of the M2C intellectuals about Cumorah is figuring out ways to persuade members of the Church to disbelieve the prophets and apostles.
Once again, Neville in unable to disagree with his opponents by fairly stating their arguments and rebutting them. Instead, he has to ascribe to them evil intentions.
The M2C intellectuals are well down the path toward deeming the Book of Mormon to be inspired fiction. It’s difficult to reach another conclusion, if one is convinced that the M2C hoax is the only (or even the “best”) explanation for the Book of Mormon.
And here’s where Neville jumps the shark with a double backflip and a twist. Mesoamericanists like John L. Sorenson, Brant Gardner, and others have written enough books and articles defending the historicity of the Book of Mormon to fill a small library. Gardner’s Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon alone is six volumes in length—nearly 3,000 pages. And yet Jonathan Neville believes that Gardner and others are about to claim the Book of Mormon is inspired fiction!

It’s claims like his that motivated me to call this blog Neville-Neville Land.


* “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.


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