Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Jonathan Neville, the hill Cumorah, and hearsay evidence

On June 28, 2019, Jonathan Neville posted a YouTube video with a rather lovely driving tour of Church history sites in the Palmyra, New York, area, including a walk from the top of the hill Cumorah to the bottom and back again.

Most of the narration in his video was perfectly fine. He showed the hill in preparation for the summer 2019 Hill Cumorah Pageant.

He did make a stop at the “Museum of the Book of Mormon,” which is in a privately-owned bookstore next door to the Church’s Book of Mormon Historic Publication Site (the Grandin Building). The museum is committed to the “Heartland” view of Book of Mormon geography, and it includes an exhibit with Neville’s book, Moroni’s America, prominently displayed alongside a lighted map showing Heartlander locations for Book of Mormon events:
Moroni's America exhibit at the Museum of the Book of Mormon, Palmyra, New York
The “Moroni’s America” display at the Museum of the Book of Mormon, showing the Heartland theory of Lehi’s journey to the promised land. Note that the Heartland geography has Lehi landing south of the land of Nephi, while Mormon wrote that Lehi landed on the western shore in the land of Nephi (Alma 22:28).
During his walking tour of the hill Cumorah, Neville made two claims concerning evidence of the Book of Mormon that do not hold up to scrutiny. I point these out because they are typical of the type of evidence to which Heartlanders often appeal.
So, there’s a guy who worked out here [at the hill] in the—in the, uh, it was 1940s—1954, I guess. But he said that he was called on a mission for the Church to come out here—the Eastern States Mission in 1954—and his first area was in Elmira, New York. That’s when they had started to put on the Hill Cumorah Pageant. He was called to be on the work crew, so he came out here to prepare stages. Now these [stages on the hill] aren’t the ones we have now [in 2019], but these were the ones that they had in the 1950s. And he says, “The director wanted a light pit at the base of the hill,” so somewhere in this area [pointing at the western side of the hill], like the one we just looked at, “for the sound system, and so on. The light pit was at the base of the hill Cumorah, kind of in the center of the ground”—so possibly right about right where that thing we’re looking at there is. “From memory, it was basically about two by four [feet] and about four feet deep,” so it would comparable to the ones we just looked at. But one piece—he says, “There was a lot of arrowheads, shovelfuls, but one piece caught our attention: It was shaped like an ax head with no hole in it. The handle would have to be fastened to the ax head.” You’ve seen those kind of ax heads if you’ve looked at the artifacts from the North America and Ohio area, as well as western New York. He said, “We cleaned it up. It was light in weight. We had files with us for our shovels because it was hard digging,” so they had to sharpen their shovels from time to time. “We took files to it”—this is the ax head they pulled up. “It was some kind of metal, almost like aluminum.” There were two other missionaries with them. And so they took the object to the director there, and that’s the last they saw of it. But he dug that up right in here [indicating the western base of the hill] and he said when they would dig in here—well, they went down four feet deep, yeah, four feet deep, and they dug up lots of artifacts here.

[21:23–23:42. The transcript is mine; I’ve done my best to guess when Neville was quoting a source vs. speaking his own words.]
Neville’s story is from a source the early 1950s. Neville does’t give us his source’s name nor tell us what he was quoting from (a book? a newspaper story? a journal entry?). Neither he or his source indicate what happened to the ax head that was found. No trained archaeologist supposedly ever examined it. It wasn’t dated to a particular time period—it could have been buried in the 1800s or in the 1940s for all we know. And yet this anonymous story of the discovery a lightweight ax head in the New York hill is supposed to prove—what, exactly? Neville doesn’t tell us.

Certainly he was implying in his two-minute-and-twenty-second monologue that it’s supposed to be evidence of the ancient final battle between the Nephites and the Lamanites (which, for Neville, is vital because he insists that the the New York hill is the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon). But without any way for us to know who wrote this account, see exactly where it was dug up, or examine the ax head (which mysteriously disappeared), how can we accept it as proof of anything?
When he reached the top of the hill, Neville walked toward the Hill Cumorah Monument, topped by Torleif Knaphus’ bronze, gold-leafed statue of Moroni. As he did so, he told another story:
Now, the interesting thing about this statue is, some people say—I’ve been told from people who have lived here for a long time that, when they first dug the foundation for that statue, they broke into a chamber, underground chamber, and they filled it with cement because they needed to have a stronger foundation for the statue—it weighs a lot, obviously, [with] that big stone on top. So, it’s too bad, but…”

[25:52–26:23. The transcript is mine.]
Some people say.” “I’ve been told from people who have lived here a long time.” What people? Where did they get this information? The monument was completed in 1935, so it’s very unlikely that anyone living today would have firsthand knowledge of such a thing. Without any way to for us to know who supposedly told Neville this story, how can we accept it as reliable evidence?

Neville didn’t say why this story was important, but we can reasonably infer that, for him, it’s evidence that the “Cumorah’s cave” story was an actual event that took place at the New York hill.

Both of these stories are examples of hearsay evidence, which, as a lawyer, Jonathan Neville must know is inadmissible in a court of law. As a purported historian, he must also know that it’s poor scholarship as well.

—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. When I was a missionary, we'd hear lots of Three Nephites stories (in Guatemala, btw), which were very impressive to a bunch of easily-impressed, in-the-bubble missionaries. Now when I think of those stories, they sound much more like folk tales and other unsubstantiable stories, and the salt grain I take them with is very large. And that goes for many of the more folksy stories we tell each other in Sunday School.


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