Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Inventing history with Jonathan Neville

Jonathan Neville, champion of the Heartland hoax, has recenty been recapping his explanation of why the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography is so popular. In his March 26, 2019, blog post “The M2C hoax – part 4 – RLDS won,” he sets forth his version of the origins the the Mesoamerican model and how it came to be the dominant view among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

By leaving out key developments and individuals, Neville has tried to craft a version of history that supports his conspiracy theory that a “cartel” of scholars and uninformed or colluding Church employees are withholding the truth from leaders and members of the Church about the prophetically-determined location of the hill Cumorah.

According to Neville, the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography was first conceived in the late 1800s by H.A. Stebbins, a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now called Community of Christ). What evidence does Neville provide that “Stebbins [began] teaching that the hill in New York is not the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6” in the late 1800s? He tells us:
In the July 1899 issue of the Improvement Era, President Joseph F. Smith published President [Oliver] Cowdery’s Letter VII, which declares it is a fact that the Hill Cumorah in New York is the site of the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites, as well as the location of the depository of Nephite records (Mormon 6:6).


In the context of the rivalry between the LDS (President Joseph F. Smith) and the RLDS (President Joseph Smith III), the republication of Letter VII just when the RLDS scholars were beginning to teach M2C is significant.
It’s only significant to Jonathan Neville, for whom Oliver’s Letter VII is a supposed silver bullet against the “M2C”* conspiracy. The text of Letter VII does not claim that Oliver came to his conclusions about the location of the hill Cumorah through revelation, of course, but that doesn’t deter Heartlanders like Neville from giving it de facto canon status.

Neville’s citation of the July 1899 Improvement Era as a “signficant” rebuttal to RLDS scholars is a textbook case of the logical fallacy of cum hoc ergo propter hoc—correlation does not imply causation. Just because Letter VII was republished in the Church’s official magazine does not mean that Joseph F. Smith (or anyone else) was aware of supposed RLDS claims about the location of Cumorah or even cared enough to respond to them. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Joseph F. Smith directed Letter VII to be published for the reasons Neville hypothesizes. Neville is simply inventing a convenient fiction and calling it history.

The earliest RLDS source Neville can point to on this subject isn’t from the 1800s; it’s Louis Edward Hills’ 1924 book, New Light on American Archaeology, in which Hills gave credit to an article Stebbins published in 1911 (see Hill, pp․ 130–31, 145). Stebbins died in 1920; Neville provides no evidence that Stebbins was teaching or publishing about Cumorah being in Mesoamerica prior to his 1911 Saints’ Herald article. A series of lectures Stebbins gave in 1894 likewise contains no mention of a Mesoamerican location for Cumorah. This supposed source of the “M2C hoax” is all in Neville’s mind.

Perhaps worse, though, Neville completely ignores the many nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint leaders who argued that Lehi landed in South America or that ruins of Mesoamerican civilizations were evidence of the truth of the Book of Mormon. These leaders include Joseph Smith, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, W.W. Phelps, Parley P. Pratt, John E. Page, Franklin D. Richards, and George Q. Cannon.

To be clear, these men believed that the hill in New York was the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon. But they did not believe in the Heartland hoax—they held a hemispheric view of Book of Mormon geography: The “land southward” was South America, the “land northward” was North America, and the “narrow neck of land” was the Isthmus of Panama. (Not, I should mentionp, three different “necks,” as Neville curiously argues for in his book, Moroni’s America.)

But a careful reading of the Book of Mormon clearly indicates that its action took place in a limited geography, not a hemispheric one—the travel distances it describes prohibit a hemispheric approach. Once we accept a limited geography, it becomes clear that the northeastern United States doesn’t remotely fit the geographic criteria in the book itself. (The first LDS attempt to complete such a map was in 1887.) That’s the origin of questions about the location of Cumorah among Latter-day Saints, not some deep conspiracy in which “the RLDS scholars have won,” as Neville claims.

At some point—hopefully in the near future—this blog will critically examine Nevile’s “Heartland” fantasy map of the Book of Mormon. Until then, for an actual history of the development of Book of Mormon geographic theories, I recommend the following:
—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.


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