Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Ad hoc solutions for fundamentalist problems

Jonathan Neville is a fundamentalist—he believes in the inerrancy of prophets, interprets scripture literally (if creatively), and rejects reassessments of traditional beliefs based on new evidence or understanding.

As an example of this, in his May 14, 2019, blog post “Restating the translation process,” he criticizes the “revisionist Church historians” who have advanced a “new narrative about the translation process” of the Book of Mormon. From Neville’s point of view, there are only two ways to interpret the evidence:
1. Joseph [Smith] and Oliver [Cowdery] (and the Book of Mormon and the revelations in the D&C) always said Joseph translated the engravings on the plates by the gift and power of God, using the Urim and Thummim (also called interpreters) that Moroni put in the stone box with the original set of plates (the Harmony plates that contained the abridged record).

2. Others said that Joseph translated by reading words that appeared on a seer stone Joseph put in a hat.
He calls these “Witness Category 1” and “Witness Category 2,” respectively. He describes “three basic approaches toward” reconciling these categories:
1. Joseph and Oliver were accurate and complete; the others were wrong (lying or mistaken).

2. Joseph and Oliver were wrong (lying or mistaken); the others were right.

3. Joseph and Oliver used the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to both the Nephite interpreters Moroni put in the stone box and the seer stone Joseph found in a well.
Neville tells us that the third view “has been widely adopted by Church historians and is now being disseminated throughout the Church as the mainstream view.” While he believes that the view is “not unreasonable,” he claims that “it contradicts what was taught by Joseph, Oliver, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.” Therefore, he asserts, it falls under what he calls the “distrust the prophetsprinciple:
It’s the same principle taught by the M2C* intellectuals; i.e., the prophets were wrong about the New York Cumorah because they were ignorant (or negligent) speculators who adopted a false tradition and thereby misled the Church.…

I consider this “distrust the prophets” principle inexcusable in both cases because it undermines faith and is not required by the evidence.
Neville is simply wrong. Responsible Church historians and scholars are not, in any way, claiming that prophets should be distrusted, nor that they were ignorant or negligent. Rather, they are rightly noting that their words (as with the words of any text) have to be interpreted. You can’t just take their words “at face value”; every reading of someone else’s writing demands intepretation. Neville himself is interpreting Joseph and Oliver and the scriptures; he’s just not acknowledging that he’s doing so.

None of the references Neville cites in support of his claim that Joseph only used the Nephite interpreters (later called “Urim and Thummim”) has to be read the way he reads it:

  • In Ether 4:5 Moroni wrote that he “sealed up the interpreters,” but he didn’t say anything about anyone using only the interpreters to translate the Book of Mormon.
  • In D&C 10:1, the Lord revealed through Joseph Smith that Joseph “had power given unto [him] to translate” the plates “by the means of the Urim and Thummim.” What Neville doesn’t tell us (perhaps because he doesn’t know) is that the wording of this verse originally didn’t mention the Urim and Thummim; it simply said that Joseph had “so many writings, which you had power to translate” (Book of Commandments IX:1). Joseph edited this revelation in 1835 and inserted the reference to the Urim and Thummim—after the time (January 1833) when William W. Phelps first began to call the interpreters and other seer stones “Urim and Thummim.” Neville cites Phelps’ use of the term, but he fails to understand its influence on Joseph Smith’s terminology.
  • Nevile cites several passages from Joseph’s 1838 history that have been canonized as Joseph Smith—History in the Pearl of Great Price in which Joseph called the Nephite interpreters “Urim and Thummim.” Since this was after Phelps’ 1833 creation of the terminology, it’s not surprising that Joseph also used that term. But Neville is simply overreading Joseph; just because Joseph called them “Urim and Thummim” in 1838 doesn’t mean that’s what he called them in 1823 or 1827.
  • The same applies to Joseph’s 1835 history, in which he wrote that Moroni “also informed me that the Urim & Thummim was hid up with the record.” Neville claims that “Joseph explained that it was Moroni himself who used the term,” but that’s not at all evident from what Joseph dictated. Again, Neville is overreading because it supports his interpretation of the text, not because the text demands that it be read that way.
  • Neville also quotes Oliver Cowdery’s 1834 history, in which Oliver recorded that he wrote “from his [Joseph’s] mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites should have said, [‘]Interpreters.’” Again we have a post-Phelps document using a term suggested by Phelps and adopted by other Latter-day Saints.

Because Neville is a fundamentalist, he believes that Joseph Smith was never influenced by anyone or anything around him; everything Joseph said or wrote was directly from the Lord and completely unchanged from the very beginning. Joseph’s editing of his early revelations alone demonstrates that Neville’s beliefs are false and that Joseph’s terminology and theological understanding developed over time, but to Neville this notion is unthinkable—it requires, from his point of view, “distrusting the prophets.” But what it actually does is paint Neville into a corner, forcing him to invent bizarre historical theories to escape the problems he himself has created.

And, in his blog post, Neville announces his latest theory: Faced with the multiple testimonies of Joseph translating the Book of Mormon by placing his seer stone into a hat, Neville tells us that “what [witnesses] observed was a demonstration, not the actual translation.” In other words, Joseph was simply showing others how he would translate, without using the interpreters; he wasn’t actually translating with the seer stone. “The demonstration,” Neville asserts, ”would solve two problems: it satisfied the curious crowds, and left him and Oliver to work on the translation in relative peace.”

The fact that none of the witnesses to the translation process ever claimed Joseph was “demonstrating” when he used his seer stone doesn’t seem to bother Neville. For him and other fundamentalists who believe the Heartland hoax, he’s squared the circle.

It’s telling how Neville has to keep inventing singular and outlandish explanations to resolve the problems that his fundamentalism creates.

—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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