Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Jonathan Neville and the logical fallacy of Appeal to Authority

Jonathan Neville frequently uses arguments that are logical fallacies—reasoning that sounds plausible but is erroneous.

One of the most common fallacies he falls prey to is the fallacy of Appeal to Authority: Insisting that a claim is true simply because someone important said it was true, without any other supporting evidence offered. An excellent example of this fallacy in action can be found in his May 27, 2019, blog post, “Memorial Day 2019” (which, outside of the first two sentences has nothing to do with the U.S. holiday on which the post was written). He writes:
I pause to remember all those who have participated in the discussion about the Hill Cumorah, including those who have spoken, written or taught about the location of Cumorah, both those alive today and those who have passed on.

Below is a list of some of those involved, grouped by where they taught the real Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is located. Their credentials are indicated.
After this, Neville places under “western New York” column Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery (whom he curiously identifies as “President of the Church”) and sixteen other apostles, Church presidents, and members of the First Presidency. Under the “southern Mexico (M2C)*” column, he lists seventeen individuals, includling RLDS scholars, LDS authors, and BYU professors. He then comments:
Everyone on the list is an exemplary individual, faithful, devoted, educated, well-intentioned, etc. They have made their respective positions crystal clear for everyone to see, as plain as words can be in all cases.

And there is no overlap between these two groups. They are as distinct as it gets.

Every member of the Church is free to choose which group to believe and follow when making a decision about the location of the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6.
This is, of course, Neville’s well-worn and tired argument that boils down to, “Who are you going to believe? The prophets of God or the scholars who are trying to lead the Church astray?” Purveyors of the Heartland hoax have been deploying this fallacious argument for over a decade. (Rodney Meldrum was using it back in 2008 to promote his DVD, DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography.)

The argument is fallacious because Neville is appealing to the authority of those in his “western New York” column to settle the argument about the location of the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon: Since everyone in his “New York” list was a Church leader, the hill Cumorah must be in New York. But Neville has never offered any persuasive evidence that Church leaders—including Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery—have received a revelation declaring the hill in New York to be the same hill Cumorah described in the Book of Mormon. Neville tries to weave around this problem by writing:
The most common rationalization among those in the Mexico column is that the people in the New York column were merely stating their opinions as men.

Everyone is welcome to accept that interpretation.

Of course, that interpretation would apply to anything the prophets teach that one wants to reject.
His concluding statement is, of course, false—prophets do have opinions, just like everyone else, but their statements sometimes rise to the level of doctrine, as Elder D. Todd Christofferson explained in 2012:
The President of the Church may announce or interpret doctrines based on revelation to him. Doctrinal exposition may also come through the combined council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Council deliberations will often include a weighing of canonized scriptures, the teachings of Church leaders, and past practice. But in the end, just as in the New Testament Church, the objective is not simply consensus among council members but revelation from God. It is a process involving both reason and faith for obtaining the mind and will of the Lord.

At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.
Since there is no revelation on the location of the hill Cumorah, the subject remains open for exploration, interpretation, and opinion. The location may someday be determined with good, solid scholarly evidence, or it may be revealed by the Lord. Until that time, the discussion continues, despite Jonathan Neville’s continual attempts to draw a line and unscrupulously force his readers to choose sides.

In a separate post I’ll discuss the question of whether Church leaders have unanimously declared the New York hill to be the hill Cumorah.

—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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