Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Friday, April 12, 2019

Jonathan Neville’s history of deception

Jonathan Neville hasn’t been blogging much this week (he’s traveling, apparently), so I thought this would be a good time to recommend to our readers something written by Matthew Roper in September 2015 concerning his interactions with Neville.

Neville first visited Roper at Roper’s office at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute on January 11, 2015. (Roper left the Maxwell Institute in 2017 and is now a research associate at Book of Mormon Central.) At this first visit, Neville told Roper about his conspiracy theory that the 1842 Times and Seasons editorials on Book of Mormon evidence in Central America were not written by Joseph Smith, but by Benjamin Winchester. Roper asked Neville if he could read Neville’s evidence for this theory, and Neville agreed to let Roper borrow an early copy of his book that then bore the draft title, Who Can Hinder: How a Forgotten Mormon’s Zeal Influenced the Church for 173 Years. According to Roper:
[Neville] told me that he had shared his research with many unnamed BYU professors, Church historians, and scholars working on the Joseph Smith Papers and that he had their support for his work and ideas. He did not provide any names.
Roper offered to help Neville by adding Benjamin Winchester’s writings to the statistical database of early Mormon works to see if Winchester could have influenced the 1842 Times and Seasons articles. He also gave Neville his business card with his contact information.

Roper shared his first impressions of Neville’s book:
As I read through Who Can Hinder I noticed the conspiratorial nature of [Neville’s] argument about Winchester, which did not strike me as very sound. I also had concerns about his claim in the book that the Times and Seasons editorials on Central America somehow “cast doubt on Joseph Smith’s role as a Prophet.” This and other elements of the book seemed to echo earlier false claims by Rod Meldrum (and others) that I had previously addressed in 2010.
(Rod Meldrum is, of course, the leading figure in the “Heartland” Book of Mormon geography movement that has been ascending over the last decade and a half. Roper’s 2010 reviews—available here and here—of Meldrum’s coauthored book, Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America demonstrate the fallacious nature of the Heartland hoax.)

On February 20, 2015, Roper “wrote [Neville] and told him I wanted to return his book and was looking forward to meeting with him again.” He also wrote that he had spoken with Paul Fields, his research associate, and indicated that they could run the stylometric data on Benjamin Winchester.

Neville and Roper met again on March 5, 2015, at which time Roper returned the borrowed book and Neville gave him a newer version of it, which now went by its final title, The Lost City of Zarahemla: From Iowa to Guatemala and Back Again. Neville asked if William Smith could be included in the analysis, and Roper gladly agreed to help. Their meeting was cordial, and Roper looked forward to doing the analysis and publishing the results in a scholarly publication.

Then Roper opened Neville’s revised book and discovered that Neville had thrown him under the bus. On page 220, Neville wrote:
On 9 January 2015, I met with Roper to discuss his article. He agreed that a stylometry analysis is only as good as the candidates tested. I suggested we collaborate to assess Winchester’s potential authorship of these articles. He said he would need the historical context, and I reluctantly left him an early draft of this book, along with my contact information. As of this writing (20 February 2015), I have not heard back from him and he has not responded to my efforts to contact him. Consequently, I have arranged for an independent stylometry analysis and will update this section as soon as that is available.
Roper recalled his reaction to Neville’s strange behavior:
I was surprised to read this. The statement seemed very inappropriate given the context of our previous interactions. He knew where my office was. He had visited me before. I had previously given him my card with my phone number and he could have called me or visited my office at any time, but apparently did not consider it important enough to do so before putting that statement in print. I thought it was unprofessional for him to do so without consulting with me first.… As far as I knew things were proceeding just as we discussed. He never once indicated to me that he was going to provide a partial representation our meetings and discussions in print and without informing me. It was unnecessary, self-serving, and unprofessional for him to represent our interactions in a way that implied that there was something furtive in my behavior.
It wasn’t until late May of that year that Roper discovered that Neville had been deceptive about his true intentions from their first meeting. Roper wrote:
When Neville first contacted me on January 9, 2015, I had no idea who he was or how informed he was about scholarship on the Book of Mormon or Church history. Our conversation had been cordial, his manner friendly. Given his interest in the subject, I recommended that he become familiar with the literature including what I had written. He indicated that he already knew all about what I had written. He did not tell me that he had been running a blog since June 2014 entitled “Book of Mormon Wars” devoted to defending the “Heartland” theory and attacking proponents of a Mesoamerican interpretation of the Book of Mormon. One of the targets of his attacks was me. He had described what I had written about the Zelph story as “deceptive” and characterized my writings as “casting doubt on the early brethren.” When Neville visited me in January, he told me none of this. He never informed me that he had a blog or that he had said anything about what I had written there. In fact, until the later part of May the only awareness that I had with his writings or arguments were those which he shared with me in his book in both its earlier and later incarnations.
There is much more to Roper’s account, and I highly recommend that everyone interested in this subject read it for themselves.

I trust, though, that this small slice of it will adequately demonstrate Jonathan Neville’s character. Instead of opening with the truth about himself and his views, he coyly and duplicitously pretended to be a sincere researcher in search of assistance from Roper. That kind of behavior is more than just unprofessional; it’s unbecoming of a self-professed Latter-day Saint who claims to be honest in his dealings with his fellow men.

Shame on you, Jonathan Neville.

—Peter Pan


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