Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Has the location of Cumorah really been revealed? An apostle says no.

In my last post, I discussed Jonathan Neville’s two-column list of those who purportedly believe the hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in New York versus those who believe it’s in Mesoamerica.

Neville’s “New York” list includes Church presidents, apostles, and other general authorities, while his “southern Mexico (M2C)*” column lists scholars, academics, and authors. His point—one that he makes over, and over, and over—is along the lines of “the prophets have spoken, so you can side with them or the disbelieving scholars who are leading the Church astray.”

What Neville fails to note is that not one apostle or prophet has directly stated that the location of Cumorah has been revealed by God, and some have expressed doubts about the New York location.

For example, Elder John A. Widtsoe, an apostle and member of the Quorum of the Twelve, wrote an article entitled “Is Book of Mormon Geography Known?” for the July 1950 issue of the Improvement Era, the Church’s official magazine. In it he stated:
As far as can be learned, the Prophet Joseph Smith, translator of the book, did not say where, on the American continent, Book of Mormon activities occurred. Perhaps he did not know.
Elder Widtsoe’s comment is most interesting, because Jonathan Neville is certain that Joseph Smith knew where the Book of Mormon took place, yet a senior apostle of the Lord freely conceded that “perhaps” Joseph ”did not know” where it happened.

Elder Widtsoe continued:
However, certain facts and traditions of varying reliability are used as foundation guides by students of Book of Mormon geography.

First, it is known by revelation that Adam, the father of the human race, lived in or near the territory now known as the state of Missouri. This has no bearing on Book of Mormon geography, since it deals with a period long before the coming of Book of Mormon people to America.
Again, Elder Widtsoe’s statement that the location of Adam has “no bearing on Book of Mormon geography” is at odds with Jonathan Neville’s view (and the views of others who promulgate the Heartland hoax). Neville’s book, Moroni’s America – Maps Edition, repeatedly makes a point of noting the location of Adam-ondi-Ahman and implying the importance of its proximity to Neville’s proposed Book of Mormon lands. (See maps 3, 4, 23, 87, 93, 122, 126, 138.)
Second, on the journey into northwestern Missouri, led by the Prophet, the skeleton of a large man was uncovered near the Illinois River. Joseph Smith said it was the remains of a white Lamanite named Zelph, a leader among this people. This is not of much value in Book of Mormon geographical studies, since Zelph probably dated from a later time when Nephites and Lamanites had been somewhat dispersed and had wandered over the country.
Yet again, Neville is at odds with an apostle: For Heartlanders, Joseph’s statement regarding Zelph is one of three key points in determining the geography of the Book of Mormon (the other two being a New York Cumorah and Zarahemla on the Mississippi River). Yet Elder Widtsoe explained that the Zelph account “is not of much value in Book of Mormon geographical studies” due to the dispersing of Book of Mormon peoples from the place Lehi landed.

Next we come to what may be the most important point in Elder Widtsoe’s article:
Third, the hill from which the Book of Mormon plates were obtained by Joseph Smith is definitely known. In the days of the Prophet this hill was known among the people as Cumorah. [Widtsoe cited History of the Church 1:15.] This is a fixed point in Book of Mormon later history. There is a controversy, however, about the Hill Cumorah—not about the location where the Book of Mormon plates were found, but whether it is the hill under that name near which Nephite events took place. [He cited Mormon 6:2, 6; 8:2; Ether 15:11.] A name, says one, may be applied to more than one hill; and plates containing the records of a people, sacred things, could be moved from place to place by divine help.

However, the hill known today as Cumorah in northern New York is a fixed, known point.
According to Jonathan Neville, “the prophets and apostles have always taught about the New York Cumorah,” yet here we have John A. Widtsoe, an apostle and senior member of the Twelve, telling us that there exists a “controversy” regarding this point and admitting that the name “may be applied to more than one hill” and the plates may have been moved after Moroni’ death.

This is quite remarkable, and an interesting blow to Neville’s most important theory.

For his fourth point, Widtsoe included a purported statement by Joseph Smith that “has been very generally accepted by the Church” that Lehi and his party “landed on the continent of South America, in Chile, thirty degrees, south latitude.” However, Widtsoe noted that “much doubt has been cast upon the reliability of this statement, since diligent search has failed to trace it to the Prophet.”

Widtsoe continued:
Fifth, a statement from the days of Joseph Smith, seldom quoted, bears on this subject. In the Times and Seasons, 1842, Zarahemla, a great Book of Mormon city, is partly identified with the ruins of Quirigua, spoken of in [John L.] Stephens’ great book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. The article in the Times and Seasons positively stated that Zarahemla, while not necessarily where the Quirigua ruins now stands, was in “this land.” This seems to place many Book of Mormon activities in that region. The interesting fact in this connection is that the Prophet Joseph Smith at this time was editor of the Times and Seasons, and had announced his full editorial responsibility for the paper. [He cited Times and Seasons 3:710.] This seems to give the subjoined article an authority it might not otherwise possess.
Elder Widtsoe then proceeded to quote from the very Times and Seasons article that Jonathan Neville argues was a fraudulent attempt by the dastardly Benjamin Winchester to throw Joseph Smith and his prophetic knowledge of Book of Mormon geography under the bus. A member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles believed and taught that Joseph Smith believed that Zarahemla and the Book of Mormon were in Central America, but Neville apparently doesn’t believe this teaching.

Whom should we believe, Brother Neville? You, or an apostle of the Lord?

Elder Widtsoe then summarized his earlier points:
They who work on the geography of the Book of Mormon have little else than the preceding approaches with which to work, [namely]: that Nephites found their way into what is now the state of Illinois; that the plates of the Book of Mormon were found in a hill in northwestern New York State; that a statement exists of doubtful authenticity that Lehi and his party landed on the shore of the land now known as Chile; and that under the Prophet’s editorship Central America was denominated the region of Book of Mormon activities.
I note with interest that Elder Widtsoe did not mention in his “approaches with which to work” the risible Heartlander claim that D&C 125:3 revealed the ancient location of the Nephite city of Zarahemla to be in Iowa, across the Mississippi River from modern-day Nauvoo, Illinois. (And no other prophet or apostle has made this connection, either.)

Contrary to what Neville continually persists in asserting, there is no revealed geography of the Book of Mormon, including the location of the hill Cumorah that appears in the pages of that book of scripture. Elder Widtsoe’s published statements support that.

—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.

1 comment:

  1. For what it's worth, I think the Zelph incident is just Joseph's weary sense of humor coming through.


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