Refuting the errors of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland hoax

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The illusion of a book review

Recently, Jonathan Neville has taken up the challenge of reviewing John L. Sorenson’s magnum opus, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book.

I’ve already taken Neville to task for his first review, in which he misinterpreted a single statement from the foreword and proceeded to attack a straw man. Since then, Neville has posted the second and third installments in his series, and they’re just as awful.

His second installment, posted April 23, 2019, starts off with a conciliatory note:
First, I re-emphasize that I have great respect and admiration for Brother John L. Sorenson, the author of Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book. As I mentioned in my own book, Moroni’s America, Brother Sorenson has helped me and many other members of the Church think of the Book of Mormon people and events in a real-world context. That is an important and invaluable contribution that I hope everyone recognizes.
While this statement appears to offer an olive branch to the “M2C intellectuals”* Neville continually rails against, it completely contradicts Neville’s own claim—repeated in a significant number of his blog posts—that Mesoamericanists teach that “the best way to understand the Book of Mormon setting is by putting it an imaginary, fantasy world of mythology,” and that way of reading the Book of Mormon “will inevitably lead those youth to disbelieve in [its] divine authenticity.”

So, does Sorenson’s work, as the chief proponent of the “M2C” theory, help people see the Book of Mormon as a real-world text or as a mythological fantasy text? And does Neville even read his own blog? I am honestly left to wonder.

Next, after insisting that “M2C intellectuals” do not lack scholarship, Neville tells his readers that they really do lack scholarship, because
Scholarship involves citations and analysis of data. It involves interpretation of source materials. It involves source-checking and peer review.

But scholarship also requires careful, respectful consideration of alternative viewpoints, and this is where Mormon’s Codex, as all of M2C publications, falls way short.
This is a fallacious claim in two ways: (1) Book of Mormon scholars who prefer a Mesoamerican context have, in fact, given the claims of the Heartland hoax “careful, respectful consideration,” (as Captain Hook noted in a recent post on this site), and (2) not all “alternative viewpoints” require such consideration, as some of them—and I would include the Heartland hoax in this category—are so manifestly fraudulent that they can (and should) be simply dismissed out of hand. Respected physicists do not, for example, give “careful consideration” to the flat-earth theory, and the Heartland hoax comes pretty close to being the flat-eartherism of Book of Mormon studies.

Neville continues by claiming, for what feels like the millionth time, that “M2C intellectuals” believe they are correct and the prophets are in error. (Seriously, he makes this point in nearly every blog post. Repeating a lie over and over doesn’t make it true, Brother Neville.) He then proceeds to defend his own unscholarly book, Moroni’s America, and dismiss the Church’s recent Gospel Topics essay on Book of Mormon geography. Again, standard stuff for a Jonathan Neville blog post.

Only after all that—824 words of cut-and-paste Nevilleblogging—does he finally get to reviewing Sorenson’s book…jacket.

No joke: This is Neville’s second review of Mormon’s Codex and he still hasn’t examined a single claim in the book itself. Instead, we’re treated to snarky quips, like this zinger:
[Mormon’s Codex book jacket:] Leading scholar and author John L. Sorenson brilliantly synthesizes in this volume his work from 60 years of academic study of ancient Mesoamerica and its relationship to the Book of Mormon.

[Neville’s analysis:] IOW, the book synthesizes 60 years of bias confirmation.
Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you book reviews from the “I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I” school of playground taunts.

Neville’s third “review” of Mormon’s Codex, posted April 25, 2019, is just as painful as the second, if not more. No kind words for Professor Sorenson, this time—Neville calls his book “a long-winded academic justification for repudiating the teachings of the prophets,” filled with “logical fallacies and circular reasoning throughout the book.” He goes on to call Mormon’s Codex “propaganda,” and “the illusion of scholarship.”

Most of Neville’s post is dedicated to, yet again, repeating the same stuff we get from him day after day:
Fact: The Hill Cumorah is in New York.¹ This was established as a fact in Letter VII,² written by President Oliver Cowdery who was an eye-witness to the depository of Nephite records in that hill (Mormon 6:6).³ Joseph Smith helped write these letters, had them copied into his personal history, and endorsed their republication for the rest of his life.⁴ The fact that Cumorah is in New York has been repeated many times by Church leaders, including by members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference.⁵ No member of the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve has ever repudiated this teaching of his predecessors.⁶
  1. Fact: There is a hill in New York that is called Cumorah. That it is the hill called Cumorah in the Book of Mormon has never been established by revelation, and its location, geographical setting, and archaeological history do not indicate that it is the hill described in the book.
  2. Letter VII is not the “silver bullet” that purveyors of the Heartland hoax claim that it is, as Stephen Smoot explained in 2018.
  3. There are no first-hand or second-hand accounts of the story of the depository of Nephite records in the New York hill. It has all the marks of being a Latter-day Saint “urban legend.”
  4. Heartlanders exaggerate Joseph Smith’s involvement in Oliver Cowdery’s Messenger and Advocate letters. And, as Stephen Smoot pointed out, the letters “contain factual errors and embellishments (which Heartlanders conveniently ignore).”
  5. Repeating a popular belief doesn’t make it true. Neville, once again, has fallen for the logical fallacy of Appeal to Common Belief.
  6. It’s exceptionally rare for Church leaders to “repudiate” misinterpretations and disproven beliefs expressed by previous leaders. Neville’s statement tells us nothing about the truth or falsity of the New York hill Cumorah claim.

I’m honestly not sure what’s worse: Neville’s seeming inability to interact with the actual claims in Sorenson’s book, or his annoying practice of writing the same thing over and over again, only (sometimes) using different words.

—Peter

* “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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