Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

One Cumorah, Two Cumorah, Hill Cumorah, Blue Cumorah

Not content with literally just making up numbers out of thin air, Jonathan Neville is now manufacturing archaeological evidence out of thin air to fit his obsessive assertion that the Hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon is in New York state.

In his March 5, 2019, blog post, “The 4 Cumorahs,” Neville repeats his absurd claim that “M2C*” will eventually cause widespread abandonment in a historical Book of Mormon among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since he provides not one shred of evidence for this prediction, I won’t bother responding to it here; rather, I’ll focus on the ludicrous comments he made in defense of this claim:
I think the descriptions in the text [of the Book of Mormon] and related scientific evidence (archaeology, anthropology, etc.) supports the traditional teachings about the New York Cumorah.
[Emphasis mine.]

Unlike genuine archaeologists—including faithful Latter-day Saint archaeologists who assure us that “the archaeology of New York is persuasive evidence that Book of Mormon peoples did not live in that region”—Neville asserts that the location of the Hill Cumorah in New York is supported by archaeology and anthropology. Unlike his fantasy charts where he make-believes data into existence, this is a testable, potentially falsifiable claim. Let’s take a look and see what evidence Neville might have to offer.

Neville insists that “the New York hill remains the best real-world candidate for the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6.” As evidence for this, he offers the following:
When he joined the Church, Heber C. Kimball visited the hill and observed the embankments around it. The area has since been plowed for decades, but detailed topographical maps suggest there may be one residual feature from the ancient embankment left.
Neville offers no citation for this claim. Perhaps he’s referring to this line from the August 20, 1864, installment of the “History of Brigham Young,” in The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star:
The hill Cumorah is a high hill for that country, and had the appearance of a fortification or entrenchment around it. In the state of New York, probably, there are hundreds of those fortifications which are now visible and I have seen them in many other parts of the United States.
This statement seems to settle the matter in the minds of Neville and many other Heartlanders. It should be remembered, however, that Heber C. Kimball had absolutely no archaeological expertise through which he could determine anything about the provenance of these “entrenchments,” beyond their simple existence. There was no way for Kimball to have known if these “entrenchments” dated to Book of Mormon times, much less if they were directly built and used during the final Nephite battles.

So Neville’s first piece of evidence, which he is very fond of citing, is a non-starter. What other evidence does he have?
Archaeologists and anthropologists have reported that around 300 A.D., the Hopewell civilization in Ohio ceased building sophisticated earthworks and instead built a series of defensive structures. This was about the time when Mormon traveled to Zarahemla and became the military leader of the Nephites. He led them on their wars with the Lamanites, which eventually ended in retreat to Cumorah. Archaeologists say there was a general Hopewell movement toward western New York. Defensive structures similar to those in Ohio, although rapidly constructed, appear throughout western New York.
It would be nice to know which “archaeologists and anthropologists” Neville is relying on here but, since he provides no citations whatsoever, it’s impossible to verify any of his claims. For all we know, he is relying on the bogus pseudoscience of Wayne May or Rodney Meldrum or other Heartlander “scholars.” Until Neville cites specific scholars with published research that we can cross-reference, he is making nothing more than a bald assertion, not offering any sort of evidence.

Besides not offering any evidence, Neville also misreads the Book of Mormon in order to shoehorn in his theory about the New York location of Cumorah. He writes:
[The prophet] Mormon expressed his idea of a “great number of men,” when he added “even to exceed the number of thirty thousand” (Mormon 1:11). The largest enumerated Nephite army was only 42,000 men (Morm. 2:9), assembled after gathering in their people (2:7), while the largest enumerated Lamanite army was only 50,000 men (2:25). This was around 346 AD, only about 40 years before the final conflict at Cumorah. After years of slaughter and retreat, the Nephites assembled at Cumorah. My reading of Mormon 6 tells me Mormon and Moroni could see the bodies of their 20,000 people lying in the Cumorah valley. The other 21 leaders of their respective ten thousand each were killed elsewhere, either in the wars immediately leading up to the battle at Cumorah or the wars throughout Mormon’s military career. This is also how I read Letter VII.
The Book of Mormon text simply does not support Neville’s reading.

Mormon 6:6 specifically says that the slaying of the Nephites in the final battle was in the “land of Cumorah” after the Nephites had “gathered in all our people in one.” After the Nephites “with their wives and their children” had gathered in the land of Cumorah, they did “behold the armies of the Lamanites marching towards them; and with that awful fear of death which fills the breasts of all the wicked, did they await to receive them” (Mormon 6:7).

After this, the Lamanites “came to battle against” the assembled Nephites (Mormon 6:8). Mormon gave a tally of how many Nephites he personally “beheld” were slain in “the land of Cumorah” (Mormon 6:11–15):
  • “[T]he ten thousand of my people who were hewn down.”
  • “[T]he ten thousand of my people who were led by my son Moroni.”
  • “[T]he ten thousand of Gidgiddonah.”
  • “Lamah…with his ten thousand”
  • “Gilgal…with his ten thousand”
  • “Limhah…with his ten thousand
  • “Jeneum…with his ten thousand”
  • “Cumenihah, and Moronihah, and Antionum, and Shiblom, and Shem, and Josh,…with their ten thousand each” (=60,000).
  • “[T]en more…with their ten thousand each" (=100,000)
Neville comments that his reading these verses “tells me Mormon and Moroni could see the bodies of their 20,000 people lying in the Cumorah valley.” But this is directly contradicted by the text! Mormon beheld no less than 230,000 slain Nephites after the final battle of Cumorah. There is nothing in the text to suggest, as Neville reads it, that these additional 210,000 Nephites had been slain “either in the wars immediately leading up to the battle at Cumorah or the wars throughout Mormon’s military career.”

Despite these problems with his interpretation of the text, Neville astonishingly insists that “the physical evidence at Cumorah accommodates these numbers, both in terms of logistics and in terms of the number of arrowheads and other weapons found in the area over the years.” Once again, however, he provides absolutely no citations for this claim. What arrowheads? What weapons? Who found them? When? Were they uncovered in a controlled archaeological dig, by grave-robbers, by farmers, or by amateur treasure hunters? What is their provenance? Have they been authenticated? Have they been archaeologically dated to fit the time period of the Book of Mormon? Can they be determined to have been used in battle (via signs of battle-wear, for instance)? Neville must answer these fundamentally important questions before he can use any supposed “arrowheads and other weapons” found at the New York Cumorah as evidence for his claims. Instead, he completely fails to notice or respond to them.

Like his use of fantasy charts in his previous post, his use of fantasy archaeological evidence in his latest post shows that Jonathan Neville is not a serious scholar. He is, rather, an ideologue, pure and simple.

—Captain Hook

* “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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