Refuting the errors of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland hoax

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Responsible scholarship and use of primary sources

In Jonathan Neville’s blog post, Cumorah depository—Edward Stevenson’s account (9 February 2019), he argues for a New York Cumorah by quoting from the writings of Edward Stevenson.

Stevenson, a nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint pioneer and missionary, self-published his book, Reminiscences of Joseph the Prophet and the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon, in 1893. Neville’s quote is from page 14 of Stevenson’s book, in which Stevenson recounted an interview he had with David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. (The following includes a longer version of the quote than the one in Neville’s post.)
It was likewise stated to me by David Whitmer in the year 1877 that Oliver Cowdery told him that the Prophet Joseph and himself had seen this room and that it was filled with treasure, and on a table therein were the breast- plate and the sword of Laban, as well as the portion of gold plates not yet translated, and that these plates were bound by three small gold rings, and would also be translated, as was the first portion in the days of Joseph. When they are translated much useful information will be brought to light. But till that day arrives, no Rochester adventurers shall ever see them or the treasures, although science and mineral rods testify that they are there. At the proper time when greed, selfishness and corruption shall cease to reign in the hearts of the people, these vast hoards of hidden treasure shall be brought forth to be used for the cause and kingdom of Jesus Christ.
The purported existence of such a cave in the New York drumlin near Joseph Smith’s family home is important to Brother Neville and the Heartland theory of Book of Mormon geography. If such a cave exists in that hill, it would be convincing evidence that the hill is, indeed, the hill Cumorah in which the ancient prophet Mormon hid “all the records which had been entrusted to [him] by the hand of the Lord” (Mormon 6:6).

(That Mormon specifically stated in that very verse that he did not hide the plates of Mormon from which the Book of Mormon was translated in that hill is a subject that I may bring up in a future post. But I digress.)

Concerning Stevenson’s quote, Neville states:
The existence of the depository of Nephite records in the New York Cumorah was attested by several of Joseph’s contemporaries.
While this claim is technically accurate, Brother Neville fails to tell his readers that the “contemporaries” who attested to the existence of this cave did not see the cave themselves and those who purportedly did see it never mentioned this experience nor left any written accounts of it.

In fact, the earliest written account we have of the cave story comes from the diary of William Horne Dame, in an entry dated 14 January 1855, in which he recalled the elements of the story as he heard them earlier that evening in a discourse given by W.W. Phelps. Phelps himself did not see the cave, but said he heard about it from Hyrum Smith. According to Phelps:
Joseph, Hyrum, Cowdery & [David] Whitmere went to the hill Cormorah. As they were walking up the hill, a door opened and they walked into a room about 16 ft square. In that room was an angel and a trunk. On that trunk lay a book of Mormon & gold plates, Laban’s sword, Aaron’s brestplate.
[Spelling original.]

Note carefully that Dame’s diary entry is a late, third-hand account: Hyrum purportedly told Phelps, and Phelps told a group that included Dame, who wrote about it in his journal. We do not have any written accounts of this even from Hyrum (first-hand), nor from Phelps (second-hand), and the date that we first learn of this event was around twenty-five years after it supposedly happened.

Responsible historians are very wary of accounts like this. Time affects our memories—we think we remember past events clearly, but often our brains have invented some or many of the details of what we think we remember. (For more on this, see here and here.) The longer between the event and the writing of it, the less accurate it is. And passing it orally from one person to another adds additional layers of distortion. (You may remember this from playing the Telephone Game as a child.)

The same problem exists with Edward Stevenson’s account of his interview with David Whitmer. Assuming for the moment that Stevenson took notes during that interview, what we have is an account of something Whitmer claimed to have heard at least forty years earlier from Oliver Cowdery. The passage of time and the nature of the quote make this a late, third-hand account (Cowdery 1829 → Whitmer [date?] → Stevenson 1877 → Stevenson 1893).

Also note that, according to William Dame’s account of what W.W. Phelps said Hyrum Smith told him, the group that went into the hill Cumorah and saw the room full of plates included David Whitmer: “Joseph, Hyrum, Cowdery & Whitmere went to the hill Cormorah.” But this directly contradicts Stevenson's version, in which “David Whitmer in the year 1877” told Stevenson “that Oliver Cowdery told him that the Prophet Joseph and himself had seen this room.”

Also, the Dame/Phelps account claims that Hyrum Smith was there and Hyrum told Phelps about it. But the Stevenson/Whitmer account claims that only Joseph and Oliver were there.

So, which version are we to believe? Whitmerʼs [via Stevenson]? Or Phelps’ [via Dame]?

Cameron J. Packer collected all known nineteenth-century accounts of the cave story and published them in 2004 as “Cumorah’s Cave” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 13/1–2. The details between these accounts vary; they have all the marks of, as Tertullian put it, “big things being made bigger in the telling of them.” The evidence seems to indicate that Heber C. Kimball heard the story from W.W. Phelps, and Brigham Young heard it from Kimball.

Without any first-hand accounts or any accounts written in the lifetime of the Prophet Joseph, we should treat this story with great caution. Yet Jonathan Neville, never being one to exercise caution in his selection of evidence or conclusions drawn from it, throws it to wind by claiming that it’s all part of a conspiracy at the highest levels of the Church to keep the truth from the Saints:
Yet we never hears [sic] about [the cave story] in books such as Saints or in any modern Church manuals, artwork, etc.

Why is that?

Because of M2C [“Mesoamerican/Two Cumorahs” conspiracy of scholars].

A New York depository contradicts M2C because the M2C intellectuals and their followers believe the “real” Cumorah is in southern Mexico.

For that reason, the M2C intellectuals claim David Whitmer was wrong. Brigham Young was wrong. Heber C. Kimball was wrong. Wilford Woodruff was wrong. Ultimately, they claim Oliver Cowdery was wrong.
Brother Neville wants—or rather, needs—this to be about being right or being wrong. His goal (which he states and restates on his blogs ad nauseum) is to demonstrate that those who don’t agree with his assertion that the New York drumlin is the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon are “rejecting the prophets,” ergo, his beliefs are the correct ones and those beliefs that oppose his are heretical.

What he apparently fails to grasp here is that the cave story isn’t something that can be demonstrated to be true or false. We know that Brigham Young believed it. We know that Heber C. Kimball believed it. But who were their sources? And were their sources accurate? We definitely don’t know what Oliver Cowdery or Joseph Smith thought about it—they left no written or dictated accounts of this event. It’s entirely possible that Joseph and Oliver had a vision of a cave and that Oliver’s account of the experience got inflated by others who heard it into an actual experience on the side of the hill where Joseph obtained the plates.

“M2C intellectuals,” as Neville calls them, don’t claim that Brigham or Heber were wrong, let alone that Oliver Cowdery was wrong. Rather, responsible historians examine the evidence and, when it is lacking, use such accounts with caution and discretion—not as a cudgel with which to beat their intellectual opponents.



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