Refuting the errors of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland hoax

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The double standards of Jonathan Neville

A double standard occurs when you selectively apply a set of rules in one situation but not another despite the fact that the situations are analogous, if not exactly the same. Jonathan Neville employs plenty of double standards when it comes to how he evaluates competing Book of Mormon geography theories. His March 14, 2019 blog post, “Creation of false traditions” makes this very clear.

Leaving aside the scurrilous claim that “M2C*” proponents are creating a “false tradition” within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because they do not accept Neville’s fringe theories about the hill Cumorah, let’s look at how he employs double standards to suit his purposes.

Neville discounts Joseph Smith’s 16 November 1841 letter to John M. Bernhisel in which the Prophet explicitly accepted Mesoamerican evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Neville claims the contents of this letter couldn’t be from Joseph Smith on the following grounds:
The letter purports to have been written by Joseph Smith, but it is not in his handwriting and there is no extrinsic evidence that he dictated the letter (or even knew about it).
As he indicates in his blog post, Neville has elsewhere attempted to disassociate Joseph Smith from the Bernhisel letter. His efforts, however, are not persuasive. But notice that Neville specifically says Joseph Smith could not be the author of this letter because it’s not in his handwriting. This is true—the handwriting of the letter is that of John Taylor’s.

But guess what else isn’t in Joseph Smith’s handwriting? His 4 June 1834 letter to Emma Smith that Heartlanders (including Neville) love to cite as evidence for the Heartland geography theory because in it Joseph speaks of traveling over “the plains of the Nephites” while marching with Zion’s Camp through Illinois. As the editors at the Joseph Smith Papers explained:
The original of this letter has not been located. JS likely dictated it to Frederick G. Williams, who penned a note at the end of it to his wife, Rebecca Swain Williams. The letter was probably mailed to Emma on 5 June after the group crossed the Mississippi River and camped near the town Louisiana, Missouri, where a post office was located. In 1839, James Mulholland copied the letter into Letterbook 2, including the note from Williams to his wife.
So, according to Jonathan Neville, the Bernhisel letter can’t be from Joseph Smith because “it is not in his handwriting.” Fine. In that case, Heartlanders like Neville can’t use the Zion’s Camp letter to Emma as evidence for the Heartland theory because it too was not written in Joseph Smith’s own handwriting, but was dictated to a scribe and then copied by another scribe.

That’s the first double standard we encounter in Neville’s post.

What about Neville’s claim that “there is no extrinsic evidence that [Joseph] dictated the [Bernhisel] letter (or even knew about it)”? True to form, Neville has to cook up a conspiracy theory to explain away the straightforward historical context behind this document.

Historian Dean Jessee explained the context of this letter:
On 8 September 1841, Bishop [John M.] Burnhisel wrote the Prophet that he was sending “a copy of Stephen’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, which I hope you will do me the favor to accept.…” The next day, the letter, with Stevens’s [sic] two-volume work, was given to Wilford Woodruff, who was passing through New York City on the final leg of a European mission, to be delivered to Nauvoo. On November 16, Joseph acknowledged the gift.
(Dean C. Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, [rev. ed.; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002], 533.)

Matthew Roper has thoroughly refuted Neville’s argument that “there is no extrinsic evidence that [Joseph] dictated the letter (or even knew about it).” Roper concludes:
Based upon current information it appears that Smith either dictated the letter to a scribe, or that he directed him to write to Bernhisel on his behalf using the words he deemed proper. In either case, it would be unlikely for Taylor or any other of his scribes to knowingly attribute to Smith views and opinions that were not his own or that were inconsistent with revelatory teachings of the Prophet. As with several other letters of this kind, it is reasonable to see the content of the letter to Bernhisel as an accurate representation of Joseph Smith’s intent, if not his own words.
The burden of proof is on Neville to refute the consensus of Latter-day Saint historians that the Bernhisel letter can be attributed, ultimately, to Joseph Smith. The idea that Wilford Woodruff or John Taylor—who was so loyal to the Prophet that he was literally willing to die for him—would attempt to undermine Joseph Smith by nefariously forging a letter (with Joseph’s signature!) promoting a supposedly apostate geography theory for the Book of Mormon in Joseph’s name is simply absurd.

And this is where Neville employs a second double standard. He cites the Wentworth Letter as evidence of what Joseph Smith really thought about Book of Mormon geography and draws specific attention to this passage in the document:
I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people was made known unto me.
Neville emphasizes the line “the aboriginal inhabitants of this country” and argues that this must mean Joseph Smith believed Book of Mormon events took place exclusively in the Midwestern United States.

As I explained in an earlier post, this argument is fallacious. Here is what Latter-day Saint historian and Joseph Smith Papers editor Andrew H. Hedges has written on this:
To think…that the phrase “this continent” in these documents necessarily meant “North America” to early nineteenth century Americans, or that “America” or “this country” meant the “United States,” would be a mistake. Nor would those reading these documents necessarily have understood “Indian” as many do today. For Joseph and his contemporaries, “continent” typically meant “a great extent of land, not disjoined or interrupted by a sea; a connected tract of land of great extent; as the Eastern and Western continent.” In at least one of the letters cited above, in fact, “this continent” is indeed juxtaposed with “the eastern continent,” reflecting this hemispheric approach to the word rather than the more narrow definition most people would give it today. Similarly, “America,” was considered “one of the great continents,…extend[ing] from the eightieth degree of North, to the fifty-fourth degree of South Latitude”—that is, all of North and South America combined. True, “[f]rom Darien to the North, the continent [was] called North America, and to the South, it [was] called South America,” but the singular noun makes it clear that “America” alone included everything from Point Barrow to the Cape of Good Hope. “Country,” too, carried the same ambiguity, which ex- plains how either Joseph or John Taylor, writing from Nauvoo in 1841, could praise John Lloyd Stephens’ book on Central American ruins as “the most correct luminous & comprihensive…of all the histories that have been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country.” “Indian,” defined as “any native of the American continent,” incorporated the imprecision already inherent in “continent” and “America.” Even the phrase “our western tribes of Indians” does little to clear things up, given how broadly “west” and “western” were, and continue to be, used.
(Andrew H. Hedges, “Book of Mormon Geography in the World of Joseph Smith,” Mormon Historical Studies 8, no. 1–2 [2007]: 80, internal citations removed.)

Back to the double standard: Neville fails to inform his readers the following about the Wentworth Letter, as explained once again by the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers:
No manuscript copy [of the Wentworth Letter] has been located, and it is not known how much of the history was originally written or dictated by JS. “Church History” echoes some wording from Orson Pratt’s A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records. Pratt’s summary of church beliefs, upon which JS drew for the list of thirteen church beliefs in “Church History,” was in turn based on a theological summary written by Parley P. Pratt. Other individuals may have been involved in compiling the essay, including Willard Richards, who wrote extensively as JS’s scribe during this period. Because William W. Phelps revised and expanded the text of “Church History” a year later in answer to a request from editor Israel Daniel Rupp, it is possible that Phelps helped compose the original essay. However, Phelps’s active role as scribe and composer for JS apparently did not commence until late 1842.
A recent biography has argued that Phelps was actively involved in ghostwriting the Wentworth Letter:
As Smith’s designated scribe in January and February 1842, Phelps likely received considerable of the Prophet’s dictation for this history. At a minimum, Phelps helped edit [the Wentworth Letter].…Phelps is either a ghostwriter or editor of other historical material in the Wentworth Letter pertaining to at least the Missouri period up through 1839.…Because Phelps was in the office when [the Wentworth Letter] was produced…he certainly had a hand in composing it.
(Bruce A. Van Orden, We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout: The Life and Times of W. W. Phelps [Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2018], 317, 322n20.)

It’s true that “whatever his debt to Phelps, Pratt, or others, JS took responsibility for [the Wentworth Letter] when it was published in the Times and Seasons.” But that’s the whole point. The very same document that Neville insists gives us a true picture of what Joseph believed about Book of Mormon geography is, like the Bernhisel letter (!), the result of Joseph either dictating or commissioning a text to be composed in his name that he then took responsibility for.

Neville’s double standards are so flagrantly transparent. He wants us to accept everything that supposedly works for the Heartland theory, like the 1834 letter to Emma and the Wentworth Letter, while having us disregard anything that contradicts the Heartland theory, like the Bernhisel letter or the Times and Seasons editorials that followed it. But in order to do this he has to call forth a double standard and selectively apply it when it’s convenient.

This is not responsible historical scholarship; rather, it’s the sad result when an ideologue cannot honestly acknowledge the devastating problems with his theory.

—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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