Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Neville’s red pill vs. an evidence-based approach

In the 1999 documentary The Matrix, the main character, Neo, is given a choice by the mysterious Morpheus: Take a blue pill and continue to “believe whatever you want to believe” or take the red pill and learn the truth about the Matrix and the real world:

That scene and the idea behind it have become a cultural meme, one so popular that it has its own Wikipedia article.

In his May 15, 2019, blog post, “Restating the two movies,” Jonathan Neville attempts to use a version of the “red pill” approach by comparing the mainstream view of Book of Mormon geography and his heterodox view to watching two movies on one screen or a 3D movie with red and blue glasses. He explains:
Because our physical perception is heavily influenced by our belief system and past experience, it is a common psychological phenomenon for two people to see the exact same image but interpret it completely differently.

One reason for this is cognitive blindness; i.e., the two people don’t see the same facts the same way because each person is blind to what the other person sees.…

It is very difficult to see both movies at the same time. We may not even be able to choose which movie to watch because we usually aren’t aware there are two movies. We “can’t unsee” our own movie, and we “can’t understand” why other people see the movie they do.…

At this point, I think most members of the Church accept the M2C* movie only because they are blind to the other movie that’s on the screen.

And the M2C citation cartel (Book of Mormon Central, BYU Studies, the Interpreter, FairMormon, etc.) continue to use censorship and obfuscation to keep members of the Church blind to the other movie.
This seems like a clever approach, but it’s fatally flawed: While it’s true that different people perceive the same facts differently, he’s insinuating that because he and other Heartlanders have been “red pilled” (my choice of words, not his) they can’t “unsee” the supposed truths they’ve come to believe.

In the real world, however, things don’t work that way. The best ideas aren’t “red pilled” into us; they become well-known and widely-accepted because they’re backed by the best evidence and arguments. This is why Jonathan Neville and other Heartlanders have to appeal to conspiracy theories to spread their message—they don’t have the evidence and arguments on their side, so they have to claim that the “M2C citation cartel” is “censoring” their message.

(Since Neville’s own books are sold at Church-owned Deseret Book stores alongside other Heartlander works, fifth columnists working inside the Church must be doing an awfully poor job of censoring his views!)

Using an evidence-based approach, let’s take another look at Neville’s examples of “Movie 1” and “Movie 2” versions of how Book of Mormon geography is taught in the Church:
Movie 1. This is an internal map that (i) matches the geography descriptions in the text as closely as possible, (ii) is neutral on questions of real-world geography, and (iii) helps students understand the relative locations of Book of Mormon events.

Movie 2. This is a fantasy map that (i) is based on a Mesoamerican interpretation of the text, (ii) represents a repudiation of the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah, and (iii) teaches students to think of the Book of Mormon in a fictional fantasy context.
What Neville can’t come to terms with is that the Book of Mormon describes its own geographical setting in a way that is very much like Mesoamerica and very much unlike the American Midwest: A relatively small area, bounded on all sides by seas. That’s why BYU’s internal map and so many other internal maps that came before it loo0k the way they do: The text describes the shape of the land that way.

Neville insists that a Mesoamerican geography “repudiates” (his word, not Mesoamericanists’) “the teachings of the prophets” about the hill Cumorah being in New York. But, as this blog has repeatedly pointed out, there is no revelation on the location of the hill Cumorah—not from Joseph Smith, not from Oliver Cowdery, not from any Church president. Neville assumes that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery knew the location of hill Cumorah from revelation, but he hasn’t produced a shred of persuasive evidence of that yet.

Finally, Neville’s claim that BYU’s internal map “teaches students to think of the Book of Mormon in a fictional fantasy context” is an assertion without evidence (something Neville does regularly; see here and here). The web site for BYU’s map specifically states that the map is an “artistic rendition” only, because (unlike Neville) “the Church and BYU stay neutral in questions of exactly where the Book of Mormon took place.”
Movie 1. All these statements about the New York Cumorah consist of the sincere but mistaken beliefs of those involved. Even members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference can express their own opinions and testify of their truthfulness, yet be mistaken.

Movie 2. All of these statements about the New York Cumorah originated with Joseph and Oliver, who knew from personal experience that Cumorah was in New York. Repudiating their teachings, as well as the teachings of subsequent prophets, undermines faith.
I addressed this claim in the previous section, but here again we have him again asserting, without evidence, that Joseph and Oliver “knew from personal experience that Cumorah was in New York.” Once again, there’s no revelation that backs up this claim; Neville gets it by assuming that prophets are infallible and never come to their own conclusions based on their own readings.
Movie 1. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, David Whitmer and others said Oliver told them about occasions when he (Oliver) and Joseph visited the repository of Nephite records inside the Hill Cumorah. Oliver must have been speaking of visionary experiences because the Hill Cumorah is a drumlin that could not contain a natural cave such as Oliver described.

Movie 2. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, David Whitmer and others said Oliver told them about occasions when he (Oliver) and Joseph visited the repository of Nephite records inside the Hill Cumorah. They were familiar with the area and emphasized the physical reality of Oliver’s description. Kimball reported visiting Cumorah and seeing the embankments around it. Oliver never said it was a natural cave, and photos of an actual room in the hill show walls built up with cut stones.
Neville is playing fast and loose with the facts here. As we’ve previously documented on this blog, the evidence for the “cave of plates” story is late and third hand, and has all the marks of story that got bigger in the retelling. There’s no evidence, for example, that Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball “said Oliver [Cowdery] told them” about the purported repository of plates; rather, as I wrote earlier, “the evidence seems to indicate that Heber C. Kimball heard the story from W.W. Phelps, and Brigham Young heard it from Heber C. Kimball.” Likewise, according to the very documentation Neville lists on his own website, Wilford Woodruff heard it from Brigham Young, not from Oliver Cowdery. Neville’s “Movie 2” summary is nothing more than an irresponsible imagining of facts that are not facts.

As Captain Hook has noted on this blog, “Heber C. Kimball had absolutely no archaeological expertise through which he could determine anything about the provenance of these ‘entrenchments’” he claimed to have seen at the New York hill “beyond their simple existence. There was no way for Kimball to have known if these ‘entrenchments’ dated to Book of Mormon times, much less if they were directly built and used during the final Nephite battles.”
Movie 1. In 1842, the Times and Seasons published articles about ruins in Central America and identified them as Nephite ruins, the site for Zarahemla, etc. Joseph Smith was identified as the editor, printer, and publisher of the Times and Seasons during 1842, so he wrote, edited, or at least approved of these articles.

Movie 2. In 1842, the Times and Seasons published anonymous articles about ruins in Central America and identified them as Nephite ruins, the site for Zarahemla, etc. Joseph was listed as the nominal editor, printer and publisher, but he didn’t actually edit the paper any more than he actually printed it. Based on the content and prior practice, the articles were written and edited by Benjamin Winchester, W.W. Phelps, and William Smith; Joseph had nothing to do with them. At any rate, these articles said nothing about the New York Cumorah.
This is Neville’s [in]famous “Benjamin Winchester threw Joseph Smith under the bus” conspiracy theory. As Captain Hook has already explained at length, Neville’s theory is not only nonsense, it also employs a double standard—if Neville insists on discarding the 1842 Times and Seasons editorials on Central America, he must also discard the Wentworth Letter, also published in the same paper during the same year; yet Neville relies heavily on the Wentworth Letter as “evidence” that Joseph supposedly knew the location of the hill Cumorah.
Movie 1. Moroni put the golden plates into the stone box in the hill in New York. This was the only set of plates, and it included both the abridged records of the Nephites and Lamanites, and the original plates of Nephi (the small plates). Joseph translated part of the record in Harmony, and part in Fayette. The witnesses described the plates differently because of differences in their own perceptions.

Movie 2. Moroni put the “original” Book of Mormon into the stone box in the Hill Cumorah. This contained the abridged records of the Nephites and Lamanites as explained in the Title Page, but did not include any original plates of Nephi. Joseph translated these plates in Harmony. Before leaving Harmony, he returned these plates to a divine messenger, who took them back to the depository in Cumorah. From the depository, the messenger picked up the small plates of Nephi and took them to Fayette, where Joseph translated them. The witnesses described the plates differently because they saw different sets of plates; i.e., the 3 witnesses saw the original plates, while the 8 witnesses saw the small plates of Nephi.
This is one of Jonathan Neville’s more bizarre theories. Like his new theory that Joseph Smith only used his seer stone to “demonstrate” translating, his two-sets-of-plates idea is driven entirely by conflicts he himself has created by insisting the the hill in New York is the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon. He’s painted himself into a corner and now has to resort to ever more outlandish theories to escape.

The fact is that there not a single document or statement from Joseph Smith or any of the Book of Mormon witnesses that even hints that Joseph had two separate sets of plates. Evidence matters, and Neville has none.

One final note of interest from Neville’s blog post; he writes:
One solution is to use the different movies as predictors and then see which is more accurate. For example, does the BYU map help persuade students that the Book of Mormon is a literal history, or does it help persuade students that the Book of Mormon is fictional (or allegorical)?
This is completely nonsensical. The clearly-stated purpose of the BYU internal map is not to connect the events of the Book of Mormon with real-world geography, not because its creators can’t do so, but because, as they declared, “the Church and BYU stay neutral in questions of exactly where the Book of Mormon took place.” Neville is demanding that the map do something that its creators specifically have stated they intended to avoid!

But what if the BYU map had placed the Book of Mormon into a real-world geography to “persuade students that the Book of Mormon is a literal history”? It’s creators would likely have chosen a Mesoamerican setting (like John L. Sorenson’s conjectural map). In that case, Neville wouldn’t be complaining that the map “persuade[s] students that the Book of Mormon is fictional”; he’d instead be complaining that it “repudiates the prophets”! (“Heads I win; tails you lose!”)

Once again, evidence matters and Jonathan Neville has very little of it.

—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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