Refuting the errors of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland hoax

Monday, June 24, 2019

Jonathan Neville (finally) responds to the Neville Land blog

Today I was pleased to discover that Jonathan Neville has at last taken the opportunity to respond to two criticisms we’ve made on this humble blog. In his new web page, “Answers to common M2C* claims” (which he announced on June 24, 2019), he informs his audience:
People often ask me why I don't respond to all the M2C arguments floating around the Internet. My answer: I've responded to all the legitimate arguments I know of. I ignore some of the poor arguments because I trust people to see through them. And yet, some of these poor arguments continue to find expression on the Internet, so I decided to address a few in this post.
“Poor” or not, I’m grateful that Brother Neville has finally decided to engage with the holes we’ve poked in his theories. Sadly, unlike the approach we’ve taken from day one, he’s chosen not to “provide the sources” of the arguments to which he’s responded ”because none of this is personal and because the authors could change their minds.” (We agree on the former and disagree on the latter, but we’d appreciate a link nonetheless.)

He begins by providing some “background” on the “M2C.” Unfortunately, his very first sentence is erroneous:
People promote M2C because they think that, if the Book of Mormon is a real history, it can only have taken place in Mesoamerica.
No, that’s not true. Those of us who believe the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica believe it because that’s where the strongest evidence currently points. If stronger evidence of an advanced ancient culture in the Americas that fits the time period and cultural marks of the Book of Mormon peoples were to arise, the focus would shift there. The Book of Mormon couldn’t “only” have taken place in Mesoamerica, but a more convincing location has yet to be proposed. (It certainly isn’t the Hopewell Culture that the Heartlanders point to, which had no written language, cement structures, or any other matching characteristics of the Nephite/Lamanite societies.)

In his “claims” section, Neville explains:
Some of the quotations…below are taken from social media, others from various book and articles.
That’s not a true statement, at least not as June 24, 2019. As of this date he has two quotations, and they’re both taken directly from this very blog:

The first quotation is from my April 25, 2019, blog post, “The illusion of a book review.” The second is from my May 28, 2019, post, “Jonathan Neville and the logical fallacy of Appeal to Authority.”

So, while we appreciate knowing Brother Neville actually reads our blog, can’t he at least be truthful even in these inconsequential details?

The Cumorah cave

We’ve written several blog posts about the story of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and others (the persons named vary in the accounts; not a good indication of solid documentary historicity) having an experience or seeing a vision of a cave full of plates in the hill Cumorah. To become familiar with the recorded statements about this story, I strongly recommend reading Cameron J. Packer’s 2004 article published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.

It’s vitally important to note that there are no first- or second-hand contemporary sources that document this story. Joseph Smith never mentioned it in any of the Church histories he dictated or any recorded sermons that he gave. Oliver Cowdery never mentioned it in any of his correspondence, including in the series of letters he wrote for the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, which Heartlanders have elevated to near-scriptural status.

The accounts of the cave story that we do have are late and (at best) second-hand. As I’ve noted previously:
The earliest written account we have of the cave story comes from the diary of William Horne Dame, in an entry dated 14 January 1855, in which he recalled the elements of the story as he heard them earlier that evening in a discourse given by W.W. Phelps. Phelps himself did not see the cave, but said he heard about it from Hyrum Smith.
In his response, Neville doesn’t address the lateness problem. He simply ignores this giant, gaping hole. Instead, he makes a rather garrulous argument in defense of Brigham Young’s June 17, 1877, version of the story:
Brigham Young reported Oliver's statement; i.e., he heard it from Oliver. That makes Brigham a first-hand witness of what Oliver said.
Actually, Brother Neville, if you’ll read Brigham’s sermon carefully, he never actually says that he heard it directly from Oliver Cowdery. Instead, he uses rather vague language:
Oliver Cowdery went with the Prophet Joseph when he deposited these plates. Joseph did not translate all of the plates; there was a portion of them sealed, which you can learn from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. Oliver says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room. He says he did not think, at the time, whether they had the light of the sun or artificial light; but that it was just as light as day. They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: “This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ.” I tell you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others who were familiar with it, and who understood it just as well as we understand coming to this meeting.… [Don] Carlos Smith was a young man of as much veracity as any young man we had, and he was a witness to these things. Samuel Smith saw some things, Hyrum saw a good many things, but Joseph was the leader. [emphasis added]
Oliver says.” “I tell you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others.” Did Brigham hear Oliver tell him this story himself? Or was Brigham repeating what others had told him they heard Oliver say? If it’s the latter, when did these people tell Brigham the story? Brigham was not at all clear on these points.

Neville asserts that, because Brigham “was well acquainted with Oliver” and “both men were ordained apostles and prophets” and “both were motivated to teach the truth,” that therefore Oliver must have “conveyed the information in private.” To use his courtroom analogy, I respond, “Objection, your honor: Speculative.

If Oliver Cowdery told this story to Brigham Young—or anyone else—while he was still associated with the Church (i.e., prior to the spring of 1838), why is there not a single record of it at the time—a written history, a journal entry, a newspaper article, a mention in a sermon, anything? Why does it only start circulating in the 1850s?

And please note that the earliest version of this story that was told by a general authority—Heber C. Kimball, in a sermon he gave on September 28, 1856—calls the cave experience “a vision”:
How does [the handcart pioneers crossing the Plains] compare with the vision that Joseph and others had, when they went into a cave in the hill Cumorah, and saw more records than ten men could carry? [emphasis added]
Neville insists that the “cave full of plates” must have been an actual, physical experience, because that’s one of a precious few evidences he has that the New York hill is the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon. But there’s not much to back his claim here; rather, it appears much more likely that the cave was seen in a vision and the story got bigger in the telling.

(And, yes, even prophets and apostles are not immune to sometimes telling stories that go beyond the facts.)

Is the New York hill called Cumorah by revelation?

My assertion was: “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 incorrectly (and ridiculously) calls my statement “word salad,” but it is neither incoherent nor incomprehensible; it is, rather, a direct and fundamental challenge to his core claim. Can he provide any statement that can credibly be considered a revealed statement about the New York hill?

The answer is, of course, no.
First, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Joseph and Oliver never detailed all the revelations they had, such as the things they prophesied when they were baptized. They didn't even detail the visit of Peter, James and John. They just declared it had happened.

Likewise, President Cowdery just declared it was a fact that the final battles took place in the mile-wide valley west of the Hill Cumorah in New York, and that the depository of Nephite records was in that same hill.
I’ve never claimed that there is “evidence of absence” of a revelation. The onus is not on me to prove that a revelation doesn’t exist (one can’t prove a negative); it’s Neville’s responsibility to demonstrate that the identification of the New York hill as the hill Cumorah is a revealed, inspired statement. (Neville is skirting dangerously close to committing the logical fallacy of demanding that I Prove Non-Existence.)

Also, by claiming that Joseph and Oliver “just declared [things] happened,” Neville is confusing direct assertions by the Prophet and Oliver of spiritual manifestations with statements that don’t claim any prophetic or inspired cause. Apples and oranges, Brother Neville. Let’s look at Oliver Cowdery’s statement from Letter VII:
At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.
Is there any hint in Oliver’s statement that he was speaking from revealed knowledge? Quite the rather, he wasn’t even asserting as a “fact” that the New York hill is the scriptural hill; rather, his use of the word “fact” was clearly rhetorical to underscore the “imposing” nature of a great final battle in such a humble place. (Heartlanders are wont to do this sort of thing—take innocuous statements and turn them into pseudo-evidence. Compare how they similarly mistreat D&C 125:3.)

Neville’s first argument, above, doesn’t provide any evidence that the location of the hill has been revealed. It’s just a rhetorical trick to distract his readers from the uncomfortable truth that he has no evidence.

Neville continues:
Second, "persuasive" is in the eye of the beholder. Because of bias confirmation, people readily accept false accounts if they confirm their biases, and readily reject objectively verifiable facts if they contradict their biases. Whether the prophets explain their statements of fact to the satisfaction of any particular reader is up to that reader. The vast majority of the people in the world don't believe even the published revelations.
Neville’s argument is just as easily turned against his own views: Because of his bias confirmation, he readily believes that the location of the hill Cumorah has been revealed and readily rejects any request that he provide evidence of his belief. Modern prophets and apostles have declared, “The Church does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas,” but Neville chooses to put an asterisk at the end of that statement because of his confirmation bias.

And his second argument, above, still doesn’t provide any evidence that the location of the hill has been revealed. It’s just a rhetorical trick to distract his readers from the uncomfortable truth that he has no evidence.
Joseph did not claim a "revelation" about the dimensions of the plates; he learned that by physically holding them. He didn't claim a revelation that the Title Page was a literal translation of the last leaf of the Harmony plates; he learned that by translating the plates.
Ah, but the dimensions of the plates of Mormon and the authorship of the Book of Mormon’s title page aren’t matters around which the Church (or any of its members, at least that I’m aware of) has built an entire doctrinal apparatus, as Jonathan Neville and the other merchants of the Heartland hoax have. There’s a lot at stake for them if the hill in New York hasn’t been revealed to be the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon: The Heartland conferences, the Heartland book sales, the Heartland bus tours, the Heartland DVDs—all of these things depend on the core Heartlander claim that the Book of Mormon took place in the American Midwest and the New York area.

If it turns out that Joseph’s description of the dimensions of the plates was off by several inches or that it was actually Mormon, not Moroni, who wrote the title page, the truthfulness of the restored gospel remains comfortably intact. But if it turns out that the New York hill is not the hill described in Mormon 6:6, then the Heartland hoax takes a serious blow—possibly a fatal one.

And Neville’s third argument, above, still doesn’t provide any evidence that the location of the hill has been revealed. It’s just a rhetorical trick to distract his readers from the uncomfortable truth that he has no evidence.

Finally, Neville tells us:
Oliver [Cowdery] was present when the divine messenger said he was taking the Harmony plates to Cumorah. He visited the hill Cumorah with Joseph Smith to observe Moroni's stone box. He told the Indians that it was Moroni who called the hill Cumorah anciently.
To which I can only respond by offering Neville a little red pill:

Of course, I have no more evidence that Moroni named the New York hill after the actual hill Cumorah in Mesoamerica than Neville has evidence that the hill in New York has been declared to be the Book of Mormon hill by revelation.

Neville calls my challenge “merely a pretext for rejecting the teachings of the prophets because the M2C advocate disagrees with what the prophets have taught.” I hope it’s abundantly clear that his claim is false.

—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. From your post:

    "Neville asserts that, because Brigham “was well acquainted with Oliver” and “both men were ordained apostles and prophets” and “both were motivated to teach the truth,” that therefore Oliver must have “conveyed the information in private.”"

    Neville is wrong. Oliver was not an Apostle.

  2. Okay, this led me to some good brushing up on history I'd forgotten and study of what exactly the scriptures say about Joseph and Oliver.

    Joseph was ordained an Apostle by PJ&J, and Oliver was ordained an Apostle by either Joseph or PJ&J (20:3 and 27:12 each hint differently). 20:38-45 makes it sound like an Apostle, at this point, is an Elder+, with the extra involving being a witness of the divinity of the Book of Mormon and leading the church.

    In 21:1-9 Joseph is identified as a prophet and seer and translator and apostle, which perhaps indicates that being a prophet is not automatic when one is ordained an Apostle (so Neville calling Oliver a prophet in the sense of revealing stuff for the whole church is lacking in scriptural justification). It goes on at length about how Joseph, and only Joseph, speaks and leads on Christ's behalf. Oliver, by contrast, gets thre only three verses about ordaining Joseph (an elder?) and preaching the gospel.

    Section 28 really drives this home: Joseph is the prophet and does the speaking for God. Oliver most emphatically does not

    So Neville is technically correct--my apologies for commenting too quickly and carelessly--that Oliver was an Apostle. But Oliver's apostleship was all about preaching the gospel and supporting Joseph and not at all about receiving revelation. Neville makes Oliver out to have more revelatory authority than he actually had.

    Ugh, I hate feeling like I'm bashing on Oliver, an extraordinary and justly revered saint. Dang heartlanders.

  3. Del Dowdell has also eviscerated Neville's claims on his blog.

    I do recommend this study guide of the Andes model:

  4. Why do you care what Neville thinks or says, seems like a waste of time to be obsessed with the opinion or another. Pres Nelson asked us in the last two conferences to learn to hear the spirit and then receive personal revelation. Let people follow the spirit and determine for themselves through the spirit is something is true or false. Seems like a waste of time and not very Christ like to go after somebody because they have a different opinion than you do.

    1. Hi, J. Thanks for leaving a comment.

      I care because Nevilleʼs opinions arentʼt just different; theyʼre leading people away from the Church of Jesus Christ and the living prophets who have been called to administer it. Personal revelation is good and important, but personal revelation does not trump the teachings of living prophets and apostles.

      Christ frequently confronted Pharisees, Saducees, lawyers, and scribes who distorted and perverted Godʼs teachings. Jonathan Neville is a modern-day example of such people. His teachings are false and dangerous, and he should be exposed for the snake-oil salesman that he is for the protection of innocent members of the Church who may be swayed by his rhetoric.


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