Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Friday, June 14, 2019

Jonathan Neville contentiously tells us how to avoid contention

In a pair of blog posts unleashed on June 14, 2019, Jonathan Neville informs us that “there is no need to contend about any of” the theories of Book of Mormon geography and offers a “guide to avoid contention” about differences over these issues. As he explains in the first:
As it says above the title of every post, “This is a friendly discussion among brothers and sisters who all love the Book of Mormon and believe it is actual history. We seek unity on how to interpret the text and Church history. This blog focuses on the North American setting as the simplest and best explanation of Book of Mormon geography, with Cumorah in New York, but we recognize other settings are meaningful for other people.”
The personal warmth and generosity of this disclaimer is belied, however, by the content of his writings. In both blog posts, Neville hypocritically ignores his own advice by engaging in name-calling, misrepresenting his opponents’ arguments, and implying that those who disagree with him are apostates.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

In his first post (“Gospel Topics Essay reposted”) he begins with an appeal to the most-favorite prophet of the Heartlanders:
Many years ago, President Joseph Fielding Smith denounced M2C* by stating that “Because of this theory some members of the Church have become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon.”

That prophetic warning has never been more important than it is now.
Neville considers then-Elder Joseph Fielding Smith’s statement “prophetic,” of course, because it supports Neville’s particular views. But Elder Smith’s personal views were not and are not the official positions of the Church. Elder Smith (who later served as Church president from January 1970 to July 1972) is certainly worthy of respect and honor, but his opinions were just that—opinions. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson has taught and the Church has publicly proclaimed, his views do not establish doctrine.

But, as has been demonstrated before on this blog, Heartlanders like Jonathan Neville prefer dead prophets over living ones. (Pay close attention, because this will come up again later.)

Despite his emphatic counsel to “avoid contention” over the issue of the location of the hill Cumorah, Neville informs us:
I’m only addressing those who are still developing their biases and those few who have an open mind about this topic. I fully realize that M2C has been imprinted on the minds of most members of the Church; I, too, believed it for decades.

I especially don’t expect M2C intellectuals, their followers or their employees, to do anything but confirm their biases [about Book of Mormon geography].
Those who agree with Neville have “open mind[s],” while those who disagree with him are “confirm[ing] their biases.” There’s no contention in that statement at all, of course.

In this first post he next turns his attention to the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon geography. He explains:
I’m told the essay was written by a committee, which is why it is anonymous.
Later on he asks:
[This] leads to the question, what is a “Gospel Topics Essay”[?] Is it scripture? Does it supersede the scriptures and all prior teachings of the prophets?

Some say yes (especially the M2C intellectuals, their followers and employees).

I’m just asking, and I’m not alone in wondering about this.
The anonymous person who purportedly told him that the essay is anonymous is wrong. The essay does not have a byline because it represents the position of the Church, and not any one individual or any committee. The introduction to the Gospel Topics Essays explains:
Recognizing that today so much information about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be obtained from questionable and often inaccurate sources, officials of the Church began in 2013 to publish straightforward, in-depth essays on a number of topics. The purpose of these essays, which have been approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has been to gather accurate information from many different sources and publications and place it in the Gospel Topics section of [the Church’s website], where the material can more easily be accessed and studied by Church members and other interested parties.

[emphasis added]
(I find it telling that the introduction makes reference to “questionable and often inaccurate sources”—what better way is there to describe the Heartland hoax and those who promulgate it?)

There is the answer to Jonathan Neville’s question: The essays—including the one on Book of Mormon geography—“have been approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.” They represent the official position of the Church, as led by living prophets and apostles. But Neville doesn’t seem to accept this:
The [Gospel Topics] essay says, “the Church’s only position is that the events the Book of Mormon describes took place in the ancient Americas.”

This is a distinct change from the 1990 letter from the Office of the First Presidency, personally approved by President Ezra Taft Benson and his counselors, Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson, which reads:

“The Church has long maintained, as attested to by references in the writings of General Authorities, that the Hill Cumorah in western New York state is the same as referenced in the Book of Mormon.”

The anonymous essay stands for itself, of course. But it has been changed once, and it can be changed again.
Once again, Neville appears to prefer dead prophets he agrees with over living prophets he disagrees with. He agrees with an approves of the First Presidency’s letter from nearly thirty years ago, but rejects the statement approved by today’s First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve that he disagree with.

Neville also fails to mention that the First Presidency’s secretary in the early 1990s issued a clarification to the 1990 statement, explaining “While some Latter-day Saints have looked for possible locations and explanations [regarding Book of Mormon geography] because the New York Hill Cumorah does not readily fit the Book of Mormon description of Cumorah, there are no conclusive connections between the Book of Mormon text and any specific site.” The issue is much more nuanced than Neville would have us believe.

Neville also fails to understand the directive from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve included in the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon geography:
[The essay] seems to be saying that everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, so long as they don’t claim prophetic or Church support.

That’s a sound approach, consistent with Articles of Faith 9 and 11.

There’s an enormous difference between claiming prophetic or Church support, and seeking to support the prophets and the Church.
“Seeking to support the prophets and the Church” does not mean insisting that your interpretation of a specific issue is correct and that prophets you agree with have all spoken by inspiration. If one wishes to “support the prophets and the Church,” one does that by following living prophets who lead today’s Church, not dead ones with whom one happens to agree.

Continuing to push the Heartland hoax in Church settings is in direct violation of the counsel of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve “not to advocate those personal theories in any setting or manner that would imply either prophetic or Church support for those theories.” Jonathan Neville is not excluded from that counsel just because he believes that he’s “seeking to support the prophets” and those who disagree with him on the location of Cumorah are not.

There are so many other errors in Neville’s first blog post; to avoid taking advantage the reader’s time and patience I’ll note just one other passage before moving on to his other post:
The [Gospel Topics] essay does not address Letter VII, which declares it is a fact that the final battles took place in the mile-wide valley west of the Hill Cumorah in New York. Letter VII also declares that the depository of Nephite records was inside the same hill.
Yes, Oliver Cowdery wrote Letter VII. Yes, he believed it was “a fact” that the Book of Mormon’s final battles took place in western New York. He believed it because that was how he interpreted the Book of Mormon. But, absent any revelation on this issue, his claim remains his opinion. Simply calling something “a fact” doesn’t make it so, any more than believing the personal statements of prophets to be revelation makes them revelation.

In his second post of the day (ironically titled “Guide to avoid contention”), Neville offers us “a guide to discussing the question of Cumorah with your friends.” He begins with a disgusting simultaneous display of unfounded hubris and misrepresentation:
Those of us who accept the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah are happy and confident. We see the consistency between what the prophets have taught, the descriptions in the text of the Book of Mormon, and relevant anthropology, archaeology, geology, etc. The more we learn, the more we see that the prophets were right all along.

We understand the text better because it all makes sense in this setting. We don’t have to rely on experts who tell us Joseph didn’t translate it correctly, or didn’t translate it at all, that he was an ignorant speculator, etc. We’re puzzled by BYU professors who don’t believe the Book of Mormon is a real history and by BYU professors who teach the Book of Mormon by using a fantasy map.
Those who follow Heartlanderism are, according to Neville, “happy and confident” (unlike the supposedly unhappy and uncertain followers of “M2C,”, apparently) because they know the truth! They believe the prophets! They’re smart! They “understand the text better”!

(Pardon me for a moment while I wipe Neville’s condescension from my computer monitor.)

His bonkers claim that those who don’t agree with him about the location of the hill Cumorah believe “Joseph didn’t translate [the Book of Mormon] correctly, or didn’t translate it at all, that he was an ignorant speculator,” is completely, totally, and utterly false. It’s a lie, one that Neville repeats over and over and over again either because he believes it or because he believes that telling it often enough will cause more people to believe it.

I submit that is is the worst possible start to anything that has ever claimed to be a “guide to avoid[ing] contention.”

Without a shred of self-awareness or sense of irony, Neville then tells us that, for Heartlanders, “everything is awesome, and it gets better all the time.” Neville is (purposely) quoting from the opening song to The Lego Movie; he even includes a screenshot of the film’s protagonist, Emmet Brickowski, with the slogan “Everything Is Awesome!” emblazoned over Emmet’s head:

Has Neville seen The Lego Movie? Apparently not, because if he had he would know that saying and its song is a lie designed to cover up the truth about the reality in which the characters in the Lego world live. Emmet and all the other characters sing it as a way of convincing themselves that everything is wonderful when it in fact is not.

Ironically, nothing could better describe the Heartland hoax that Neville shills for: They claim that they are “happy and confident” because they’ve correctly interpreted “the teachings of the prophets.” In reality, however, they have been deluded by a false (but extremely profitable) theory that’s based on selective quotes from dead prophets and a rejection of the counsel of living prophets.

“Everything is awesome!” Neville triumphantly declares while standing on his foundation made of sand.

Neville encourages his readers:
Don’t expect anyone else to believe something just because you do. If you try to change someone else’s opinion, you will become frustrated or even angry. Just look at how the M2C employees are acting on the Internet.
Once again, without a shred of evidence, he’s claiming that those who disagree with him are “frustrated” and “angry,” and this is evident from how they are “acting on the Internet.”

It’s not frustration, Brother Neville. It’s not anger, either. It’s a sad but necessary duty to correct the lies you tell about those who disagree with you and to explain why the Heartland hoax is wrong and leading people astray. If anyone is “acting [badly] on the Internet,” it’s you, for telling untruths, misrepresenting your opponents, and continually resorting to childish name-calling.

Neville suggests a “a question to ask when we discuss the Hill Cumorah with our M2C friends”:
How many times do the prophets have to reaffirm the New York Cumorah before you will accept what they teach?

For most M2C intellectuals and their employees, the answer in their mind is this: “I’ll never accept that. The prophets don’t know. Our experts have interpreted the Book of Mormon for us and they say Cumorah can only be in Mesoamerica.‘

But they won’t say that. Instead, they’ll get angry and refuse to talk about it.
This is the first of many, many fallacious strawman arguments Neville makes in this post.

The answer that “most M2C intellectuals and their employees” would actually make would be more along the lines of this:

“I reject the premise of your query because you are simply begging the question: You presume that statements made by prophets about the hill Cumorah being the hill in New York are based on revelation, rather than on commonly-held belief. If you can point to a statement about the location of the hill Cumorah that has been presented to the Church as a revelation, then we can have a discussion on your terms. Until then, I prefer to follow the published statements of living prophets and apostles who have affirmed that ‘the Church does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas’—a statement that includes the location of the hill Cumorah.”

Neville continues a bit with his hypothetical strawman “conversation,” then he declares:
[In my opinion], so long as our leading intellectuals in the Church claim (and teach) that we need the modern prophets to reaffirm the New York Cumorah “one more time” before they’ll accept it, there is no reason for the prophets to teach it yet again.

These intellectuals (and their followers) have rejected the teachings of all the prior prophets and apostles on this topic. We have no reason to believe they would accept the New York Cumorah even if President Nelson taught it tomorrow.
My dear benighted Brother Neville, we don’t “need the modern prophets to reaffirm the New York Cumorah ‘one more time’” because they’ve never affirmed it by revelation in the first place. You claim that we “have rejected the teachings of all the prior prophets and apostles on this topic,” when the fact is that you have rejected the teachings of living prophets and apostles on this topic. President Nelson isn’t going to “teach [the New York Cumorah] tomorrow” because he and the other Brethren have already spoken on this subject—you just reject what they’ve declared.

Neville continues on a bit with more eye-rolling “dialogue” between an imaginary Heartlander and an imaginary “M2C” believer, all of it leading inexorably to his view winning the imaginary argument. (Please pass the Pepto-Bismol.)

Captain Hook and I have been blogging here for just over four months, and in that time it’s become depressingly clear to me that Jonathan Neville’s blog posts aren’t improving, but rather are getting worse. It seems to me that he’s becoming more strident and less clear-headed in his thinking. He’s committed to his bias and is continually doubling down on it. His refusal to engage with or respond to any criticisms of his views while blithely misrepresenting the views of those he disagrees with is accelerating at a breakneck pace.

The uncomfortable truth that Jonathan Neville refuses to confront is that it’s readily apparent to the unbiased reader that the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon geography was written specifically to address the spread of the “Heartland” theory of Book of Mormon geography. Will Neville continue to follow the teachings of dead prophets whose words he prefers to those of livings ones?

—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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