Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Heartland hoax, or Neville through the looking-glass

Every once in a while, Jonathan Neville manages to set the “lack of self awareness” bar just a little higher.

The latest example of this is his March 21, 2019, blog post “The M2C hoax – Part 2 – Power of psychology,” in which he goes after the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography. He claims the widespread belief in this theory is the driving force behind a massive conspiracy by Church employees to avoid “psychological pain to Church members” who haven’t learned about the New York location of the hill Cumorah:
We ask ourselves, why are they doing this? These employees are good people with worthy motives: they want to bring people to Christ. They think promoting M2C* is the best way to do this, even if it means censoring the teachings of the prophets, revising Church history narratives, and insisting on one interpretation of the text of the Book of Mormon.
Neville here ascribes worthy motives to these censoring, revisionist Church employees (although his assessment of them has’t always been so kind), claiming—with a straight face, supposedly—that they think the best way to “bring people to Christ” is to falsify the record and lie to millions of Latter-day Saints. It doesn’t seem to cross Neville’s mind that those who believe in a Mesoamerican Book of Mormon geography can do so both with honest intentions and with good, legitimate reasons for doing so.

In something resembling a frenzied fever-dream, Neville asks his readers, rhetorically, “On what topic other than M2C does the Church condone outright censorship of historical documents?” As Captain Hook has demonstrated on this blog, responsible historians (of which Jonathan Neville is not one) critically analyze sources and rely on their strengths while admitting their weaknesses. What Neville calls “censorship” is actually responsible scholarship that disagrees with his fringe theories.

The Church has made available a wealth of source documents—including the very documents Neville claims that they’re censoring—and even linked to them in their online version of Saints, their new Church history series. Anyone can, with the click of a mouse or a tap of a screen, see and read the original documents for themselves. Actual censorship would be suppressing the originals—not providing access to them at all. But since “Church historians disagree with me” isn’t a compelling argument, Neville naturally turns to the conspiracy theories that are at the very core of the “Heartland” hoax. (More on that in a moment.)

He goes on to claim that the New York location of Cumorah isn’t believed more widely by Latter-day Saints due to confirmation bias, the human tendency to disregard evidence that contradicts what we already believe. Neville presents his readers with a scenario (which he claims “many readers of this blog have tried”) in which a believer in the Heartland hoax shows an unsuspecting friend a copy of Oliver Cowdery’s Letter VII—the supposed “silver bullet” for Heartlanders—after which the friend becomes confused and turns to unreliable online sources (the dastardly “M2C citation cartel”!) to disprove what he’s just read confirm what he already believes.

Next, he says, the Heartlander shows his friend statements by Church leaders about the hill Cumorah. When that, too, fails, Neville goes through the looking-glass:
Next, you get into the sciences: archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, etc., and show them things they’ve never known before. You’ll get the same M2C responses.

No matter what evidence you provide, you will not change the mind of an M2C intellectual or follower. Change is too psychologically painful.
Neville’s claim is so bizarre that it’s hard to know whether to laugh to simply stand in stunned silence. According to him, Latter-day Saints don’t believe in “evidence” for the Heartland hoax, not because it is pseudoscientific garbage, but because “change is too psychologically painful.”

The Heartland theory of Book of Mormon geography makes many claims that cannot be supported by responsible science and scholarship, including that the small agrarian Hopewell communities in Ohio were the great Nephite civilizations and the Michigan Relics (which geologist and apostle James E. Talmage declared to be “forgeries…made and buried to be dug up on demand”) are authentic evidence of ancient Hebrew in America. Proposed Heartland Book of Mormon maps have to so dramatically distort the descriptions of the Nephite and Lamanite lands in the book itself that it’s hard to believe that anyone can take them seriously.

If change is too “psychologically painful” for anyone, it’s for Jonathan Neville himself, who, from the very start of his interest in Heartlanderism, has received repeated challenges and responses to his questionable understanding of the Book of Mormon but has refused to recant or reconsider anything he’s claimed.

—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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