Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The logical fallacies of Neville Land

Jonathan Neville frequently errs by appealing to logical fallacies.
A logical fallacy is, roughly speaking, an error of reasoning. When someone adopts a position, or tries to persuade someone else to adopt a position, based on a bad piece of reasoning, they commit a fallacy. . . . Some logical fallacies are more common than others, and so have been named and defined.

In his February 15, 2019, blog post, “Cumorah and Presidents Lee and Kimball,” Neville falls prey to least six named fallacies:
  1. Appeal to Common Belief
  2. Begging the Question (also known as circular reasoning)
  3. Avoiding the Issue
  4. Complex Question Fallacy
  5. False Dilemma (also called the Either-Or Fallacy)
  6. Strawman Fallacy
In addition to these, he continually employs derogatory terms (a form of name-calling) to refer to those who disagree with him. This is not a logical fallacy itself, but it approaches Poisoning the Well.

(“These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him. . . .”)


On February 12, 2019, Book of Mormon Central published the video, “What Have Prophets Thought about Book of Mormon Geography?

In two blog posts (so far), Jonathan Neville responded to this video. This article focuses on the second post (linked above).

Appeal to Common Belief

Neville affirms and defends the idea that “The prophets and apostles have always taught that the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in western New York.” he informs us that this is the sole idea that motivates him to blog and write and speak:
The Brethren have consistently and persistently taught two things:

1. The Hill Cumorah is in New York. Period.

2. We don’t yet know where the other events took place. Period.

Everything else is subject to further study, analysis, and speculation.

This is my own approach, in this blog, in my books and articles, and in my presentations. Beyond the New York Cumorah, anything is possible.
While this example of Appeal to Authority is technically a logical fallacy, I fully recognize that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is led by prophets who have access to revelation, and that their pronouncements—given unitedly and under inspiration—“shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation” (D&C 68:4).

What Neville assumes, without making an argument for it, is that leaders of the Church have taught a New York Cumorah because it’s a truth that has been revealed by the Lord through revelation. However, he doesn’t point to a single canonized passage of scripture or a statement issued by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve unitedly declaring that the Lord has revealed that the hill near the Smith home in western New York is the same hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon. The closest he can get to this is a single form letter prepared by the First Presidency in 1990 that responded to inquiries about this issue with:
The Church has long maintained, as attested to by references in the writings of General Authorities, that the Hill Cumorah in western New York state is the same as referenced in the Book of Mormon.
But notice that this statement does not claim the identify of the hill in New York is based on revelation, but rather on “references in the writings of general authorities.“ In other words, the Church maintains this position because general authorities who have written about it have believed it. But the personal writings and statements of general authorities do not establish doctrine, as Elder D. Todd Christofferson explained in April 2012 general conference. Church leaders have stated, instead, that “doctrine resides in the four ‘standard works’ of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith.”

So, Neville’s repeated assertion about the teachings of general authorities on the location of Cumorah, even if true, only tells us what the common belief has been among general authorities. Without evidence of a revelation on the matter, Neville’s argument is an Appeal to Common Belief and is therefore fallacious.

(Neville will no doubt claim that I’m in league with “the intellectuals at BYU and CES [who] rationalize that the prophets and apostles are wrong,” but that would be a Strawman Fallacy; more on this below.)

Begging the Question

“Begging the question” is an argument where the conclusion is assumed instead of being argued; it’s a form of circular reasoning.

Almost all of Jonathan Neville’s blog posts beg the question because he assumes instead of arguing for a revealed location of the Book of Mormon hill Cumorah. This is related to his Appeal to Common Belief/Appeal to Authority, above: His argument that the hill in New York is the hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon presumes that understanding is based on revelation, but he doesn’t make any arguments for that assertion; he merely accepts it as obvious and unquestionable when it is neither.

Avoiding the Issue

In 1842, a series of five articles appeared in Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper published in Nauvoo, which included extracts from the 1841 two-volume work Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, by John L. Stephens. (You can read volume 1 and volume 2 online.) Stephens was the first European to travel through Mesoamerica and document the ruins of the ancient civilizations that had been there. The September 15, 1842, Times and Seasons editorial—under the ironic title “facts are stubborn things”—included a lengthy extract from Incidents of Travel that described the ruins of Palenque in southern Mexico and concluded:
The foregoing extract has been made to assist the Latter-Day Saints, in establishing the Book of Mormon as a revelation from God. It affords great joy to have the world assist us to so much proof, that even the most credulous cannot doubt. We are sorry that we could not afford the expense to give the necessary cuts referred to in the original.

Let us turn our subject, however, to the Book of Mormon, where these wonderful ruins of Palenque are among the mighty works of the Nephites:—and the mystery is solved.

Mr. Stephens’ great developements of antiquities are made bare to the eyes of all the people by reading the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. They lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found. . . . Who could have dreamed that twelve years would have developed such incontrovertible testimony to the Book of Mormon? surely the Lord worketh and none can hinder.
The next issue of Times and Seasons contained another lengthy extract of Incidents of Travel, and editorialized:
Central America, or Guatimala, is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien and once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south.— The city of Zarahemla, burnt at the crucifixion of the Savior, and rebuilt afterwards, stood upon this land as will be seen from the following words in the book of Alma [22:32].
Two of the five articles were signed Ed. (i.e., the authorship was ascribed to the paper’s editor) and the other three were unsigned. Joseph Smith had become editor of the newspaper earlier that year,in February 1842, declaring “This [issue] commences my editorial career, I alone stand responsible for it, and shall do for all [issues] having my signature henceforward.” He continued as editor until mid-November 1842. It is therefore reasonable to argue that Joseph Smith either wrote the unsigned editorials himself or approved of their publication as editor.

Jonathan Neville doesn’t buy this argument, however. He believes that Joseph was unaware of the articles and that they were, in fact, written and published by someone else who had nefarious intent to undermine the Prophet. (With regard to that theory, see here.)

But, as the video from Book of Mormon Central points out, the Prophet Joseph had received a copy of Incidents of Travel in 1841 from John M. Bernhisel, bishop of the branch of the Church in New York City, and he responded to Bernhisel in a letter dated 16 November 1841:
I received your kind present by the hand of Er. [Wilford] Woodruff & feel myself under many obligations for this mark of your esteem & friendship which to me is the more interesting as it [i.e., Stephens’ book] unfolds & developes many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon; I have read the volumnes with the greatest interest & pleasure & must say that of all histories that have been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country it is the most correct luminous &comprihensive.
Joseph’s letter to Bernhisel, written only two months before Joseph assumed editorial duties over the Times and Seasons and editorials about Stephens’ book began to appear in the same newspaper, would seem to be exceptionally strong evidence that Joseph himself wrote or directed someone to write those editorials, and that he approved of them.

How does Jonathan Neville respond to the Bernhisel letter in his blog post about the Book of Mormon Central video? He doesn’t. He completely ignores it. Instead, he takes the following swipe at those who disagree with him:
M2C* intellectuals and their followers continue to promote the bogus Times and Seasons premise because it allows them to frame Joseph Smith as an ignorant speculator who misled the Church about the New York Cumorah, and who learned Book of Mormon geography from a popular travel book.
Neville’s strawman argument in that statement will be examined in a moment, but did you notice how he commits the fallacy of Avoiding the Issuee? The Bernhisel letter is an inconvenient piece of very strong evidence, so he chooses to simply ignore it.

Perhaps he has dealt with it elsewhere; it would have been pertinent to restate his argument against it in the blog post under consideration.

Complex Question Fallacy

This fallacy involves “A question that has a presupposition built in, which implies something but protects the one asking the question from accusations of false claims.” A famous example of the Complex Question Fallacy is “When did you stop beating your wife?” Even if one responds that he has never beaten his wife, the questioner has already prejudiced his audience against the person who was asked the question—they assume that he has beaten his wife, a charge that the questioner hasn’t demonstrated to be true.

Jonathan Neville commits this fallacy by framing the debate thus:
Now it’s a question every member of the Church can answer: do we accept or reject the teachings of the prophets?
Notice how he sets up his readers? You either believe as Neville does about the location of the hill Cumorah and therefore “accept the teachings of the prophets,” or you believe the “M2C intellectuals” about Cumorah and reject the teachings of the prophets. Neville doesn’t allow for the possibility that the statements of Church leaders about the location of Cumorah is a complex subject that involves examining possible claims to revelation (or lack thereof) versus assumption and common belief. The way he frames his question allows him to subtly accuse his opponents of wrongdoing without actually addressing their arguments.

False Dilemma

Neville’s question in the previous section is also an example of the fallacy of the False Dilemma: He presents us with only two choices when there is, perhaps, a third possibility or even a spectrum of possible choices. This fallacy is also called either-or and black-and-white thinking.

Other examples of the False Dilemma from his February 15, 2019, blog post include [with my notes in bracketed italics]:

  • “In my view, so long as the further study [of Book of Mormon geography] is intended to support the prophets, it’s beneficial. But if it’s intended to repudiate the prophets, it’s not beneficial.” [Of course, one must come to the same conclusions as Neville does in order to be classified as “supporting the prophets.”)
  • “The M2C intellectuals disagree with me on [Book of Mormon geography], which is fine—so long as they make their position clear and don’t hide it behind a facade of ”neutrality.” [According to Neville, those who are inclined toward a Mesoamerican Book of Mormon geography must be hiding behind a “facade” to disguise their true intentions.]
  • “During [Harold B. Lee’s] presidency, so far as I know, no official statements were made about the Cumorah question. The issue hadn’t reached the level of importance of the other matters they needed to address.” [Or, perhaps, it wasn’t an issue at all, because some or most of the Brethren didn’t have an opinion on the matter.]
  • “Let’s consider two alternative explanations for President [Marion G.] Romney’s [October 1975 general conference] talk. . . . You can decide which scenario is more plausible: M2C or Letter VII.” [Why are there only two possible scenarios here? Because Neville needs to box his opponents in with a strawman argument. See below.]
  • “Every prophet and apostle who has ever formally addressed Cumorah has affirmed these teachings. None has repudiated their predecessors or fellow Quorum members.” [Neville again tries to lock his readers into a choice between acceptance or repudiation. He doesn’t seem to consider that members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are not given to censuring one another, repudiating them from the pulpit, or even disagreeing in public. It’s entirely possible that other general authorities disagreed with President Romney but didn’t feel it was worth making an issue over, let alone starting a public feud.]

  • A reading of Neville’s blog posts will amply reveal that he engages in the False Dilemma at nearly every turn. For him, there are only two choices: Believe in a New York Cumorah and support the prophets or disbelieve it (or be on the fence about it) and reject the prophets.

    Strawman Fallacy

    This fallacy involves “Substituting a person’s actual position or argument with a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of the position of the argument.” Rather than address the arguments one’s opponent has actually made, it’s easier to set up a “straw man” and simply knock it over and declare victory.

    Jonathan Neville’s writings are saturated with straw men. He repeatedly, continually, and unceasingly casts the beliefs and arguments of his opponents in the worst possible light. He gives them no room for honest disagreement; rather, according to him, they are purposely and maliciously trying to undermine the prophets, suppress the truth, and mislead the Saints.

    Here are a handful of examples of the Strawman Fallacy in action in just this one blog post from Brother Neville:

  • “Nevertheless, M2C intellectuals and their followers continue to promote the bogus Times and Seasons premise because it allows them to frame Joseph Smith as an ignorant speculator who misled the Church about the New York Cumorah, and who learned Book of Mormon geography from a popular travel book. Then, as well-qualified PhDs, these intellectuals assert their own views as superior to what the ‘unqualified’ Brethren have always taught about the New York Cumorah.”
  • “The M2C intellectuals need to create . . . confusion [about the New York Cumorah] because most Church members, once they learn what the prophets have taught, agree that Cumorah is in New York.”
  • “The fundamental bias of M2C is the claim that the prophets are wrong about Cumorah.”
  • “Here’s how M2C interprets the teachings of the prophets: 1. The Hill Cumorah is in New York? Question mark for the prophets, but the scholars know the hill Cumorah is in southern Mexico. 2. We don’t yet know where the other events took place? Question mark for the prophets, but the scholars teach with certainty that these events took place in Mesoamerica.”
  • The M2C intellectuals feel free to reject President Romney’s talk because he wasn’t President of the Church; he was just a counselor in the First Presidency. Had President Kimball given the talk, they say, then they would accept the New York Cumorah.
  • “The M2C intellectuals claim that President Romney was wrong about the New York Cumorah. They acknowledge (condescendingly) that President Romney honestly believed what he taught, but they claim that he, like all of his predecessors, was simply wrong.”

  • Neville also sets up an elaborate “either-or” scenario that asserts Mesoamericanists believe (explicitly or implicitly) that President Romney hid his beliefs about the location of Cumorah from President Kimball until delivering them at general conference, “stunning” President Kimball. This claim is ludicrous on the face of it, but Neville seriously declares it the “M2C scenario.”

    Neville’s strawman misrepresentations of his opponents’ beliefs and arguments isn’t just poor form; it’s uncharitable and unchristian.


    The examples I’ve give above are typical of Jonathan Neville’s copious blog posts. He seems unable or unwilling to argue the merits of his position, so he instead regularly relies on misrepresentation, mischaracterization, and character assassination to win the debate over Book of Mormon geography.

    In my opinion, until he stops these practices, those who agree with his views on a New York Cumorah and the Heartland Book of Mormon geography should repudiate him, his blogs, his books, and his public presentations.


    * “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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