Refuting the errors of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland hoax

Monday, July 15, 2019

Jonathan Neville can stop this. But will he?

Last week, Daniel Peterson—a man who needs no introduction—linked to one of my blog posts on his own blog over at Patheos, Sic et Non. In his July 12, 2019, post, “I’m sincerely worried, and I hope that this will stop,” Brother Peterson quoted the Prophet Joseph on the subject of those who criticize the Church and its leaders from within. These quotes support what I have been arguing for some time: Jonathan Neville’s continual criticism of Church employees, Church teachers, Church historians, and Church missionaries is putting him on a path that will lead to apostasy.

On July 13, Neville responded in a comment on Peterson’s blog (using the too-clever-by-half pseudonym “B Winchester”). He then followed up on July 15 in a blog post (cross-posted here and here) entitled, “I hope that this will stop.”

The following is my response to Neville’s July 15 blog post. I will quote the salient portion in full, with commentary. Boldface and italics in the quoted portions are Neville’s.
Now, let’s consider the title of this post: “I hope that this will stop.” That’s a great title for what I hope will stop; i.e., the ongoing censorship of any facts or ideas that contradict M2C.*
Neville’s continual claim of “censorship” is, in fact, the problem. He disagrees with Church historians and curriculum writers on which historical documents and claims should be given weight and precedence over others. Because Church historians and curriculum writers prefer sources that Neville doesn’t like and omit sources that he does like, he accuses them of “censorship.” That’s complete nonsense. Much of writing history involves choosing which sources to rely on and which to ignore, which to give weight to and which to discount.

Beyond that, it’s not even clear what many of Neville’s criticisms have to do with “M2C” in the first place. For example, he’s recently all but accused Church missionaries who work at the Palmyra, New York, visitors center of lying about Mary Whitmer’s encounter with an angel. Whether he’s right or wrong about the historical facts (or the appropriateness of the way he’s chosen to express his concerns), what does that have to do with the Mesoamerican model of Book of Mormon geography? According to Neville, everything the Church does that he disagrees with is part of the “M2C” conspiracy.
The title [of my blog post] comes from a post by one of our favorite M2C intellectuals, the wonderful brother Dan Peterson, a BYU professor, former FARMS principle, current head of the Interpreter Foundation, etc. He’s a great guy who has written lots of useful and important material. However…
If he’s a “wonderful brother” and “great guy,” then please stop calling him (and anyone else) an “M2C intellectual,” Brother Neville. Your term is pejorative, not descriptive. I think you know this and are doing it on purpose; in case you don’t know it, please stop it.
There’s always a downside of calling attention to an otherwise obscure corner of the Internet, but in this case, it’s a chance for people to see how the M2C intellectuals operate. That upside outweighs the downside, so here goes.
It’s most curious to me that Neville would refer to Daniel Peterson’s blog as “obscure,” since Patheos is the highest-traffic religious web site on the Internet, with around 8 million viewers and 13 million pageviews per month with a curated list of bloggers (of whom Peterson is one). Neville’s blogs, by comparison, have considerably less traffic: about 1,400 viewers and 3,200 pageviews per month (for MoronisAmerica.com) and about 3,700 viewers and 8,200 pageviews per month (for BookofMormonCentralAmerica.com), at least some of whom are the same people visiting both sites. Who is “obscure” here?

Now, truth isn’t decided by popular vote. Daniel Peterson may have many more readers than Jonathan Neville but still be wrong. Fair enough. But that wasn’t Neville’s reason for calling Peterson’s blog “obscure.” He did it so that he can dismiss Peterson’s views before even engaging with them. Who cares what Peterson writes on his “obscure” blog, amirite?

That’s childish and unprofessional, and it’s the main reason why this blog exists: To throw a light on Neville’s shameless behavior. (More on that in a bit.)
Apparently for a while now, brother Dan has used his blog to link to an anonymous troll who has been criticizing my ideas. I can see why Dan would refer people to this troll; the troll’s arguments are so irrational that they make Dan’s look good by comparison.
If you didn’t pick up on it, the “anonymous troll” is this blog.

Once again, we see Neville dismissing anything critical of his views by labeling it with a term that tells his readers that it’s not worth their time even considering it. Don’t engage. Don’t respond. Just ridicule it and tell people to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

For the record, this blog is not “anonymous,” nor are Captain Hook and I “trolls.”

First, we are not “anonymous”; we are pseudonymous. We want the argument to be about Jonathan Neville’s claims and tactics, not personalities. Many of Neville’s criticisms of the Church center around his “M2C” conspiracy theory and, while neither one of us are that well-connected within the Church, we don’t want to be part of Neville’s Enemies List of people who are supposedly to blame for the “censorship” and other terrible things that are supposedly going on.

Second, we are not “trolls.” Internet trolls post inflammatory, off-topic messages in order to sow discord and provoke emotional responses for the troll’s amusement or benefit. The purpose of trolling is simply to make people angry and then sit back and enjoy the fray. That is as far from what we want to accomplish as it is possible to get. Rather, we desire to lay bare Jonathan Neville’s tactics—the irresponsible ways he uses historical sources, the shocking ways he misrepresents those who disagree with him, the truly disturbing ways in which he accuses Church leaders and employees of lying and supposedly “rejecting the prophets.” That’s not trolling.
But still.

The whole thing is bizarre, really; brother Dan could contact me directly if he has a problem. I’ve tried to meet with him but he refuses.
I can’t speak for Brother Peterson, but after the way Neville treated Matthew Roper, if I were Peterson, I’d be wary of dealing with Neville in person.
The tactic I want to point out is this: if you disagree with M2C intellectuals, they’ll quickly play the “apostate” card, just as brother Dan did here.

That’s standard totalitarian tactics. It fits with the actions of the M2C citation cartel over the last few decades.

By contrast, I’ve made it clear that I don’t care what anyone else thinks. People are entitled to believe whatever they want, and that doesn’t make them apostates.
This is a jaw-dropping claim. Jonathan Neville regularly accuses Church employees and missionaries of “censorship” and “rejecting the prophets”—of purposely distorting the historical record and being unfaithful to leaders of the Church. He may not use the word “apostate,” but he clearly and obviously implies it on nearly a daily basis on his numerous blogs. His protest, “I don’t care what anyone else thinks,” is clearly, obviously, undeniably false—his daily criticisms of the Church amply demonstrate that he does care about the thoughts and beliefs of the people who are responsible for Church history, Church curriculum, and the content on the Church’s website.
The issue that brother Dan is worked up about is this: do we accept or reject what the prophets have taught about the New York Cumorah?

According to M2C dogma, members of the Church are supposed to reject what the prophets have taught about Cumorah. That’s how the M2C intellectuals justify censoring those teachings. That’s how they justify teaching CES and BYU students that the prophets are wrong.
FALSE. This is not about “rejecting the prophets.” It’s about discerning between what is Church doctrine and what is the opinions of Church leaders.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson and the Church’s Newsroom have both declared that, “The President of the Church may announce or interpret doctrines based on revelation to him” and that “doctrinal exposition may also come through the combined council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,” while “not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine.” In other words, just because a Church leader (or even multiple leaders) said something does not make it doctrine.

Doctrine comes by revelation and council, not by an important person publishing something Jonathan Neville (or anyone else) happens to agree with. Letter VII does not establish Church doctrine. The testimony of President Marion G. Romney does not establish Church doctrine. No matter how many testimonies of Church leaders Neville could produce declaring the New York Cumorah to be the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon, it would not be Church doctrine. Neville may choose to believe those testimonies, but it is not “rejecting the prophets” to disagree with statements of leaders that are not the doctrine of the Church.
Instead, you’re supposed to believe Cumorah is in southern Mexico (or in BYU’s fantasy world) and if you don’t believe that, you’re an apostate.
FALSE. You’re free to believe anything you want about the location of the hill Cumorah, Brother Neville—that it’s in New York, or in southern Mexico, or in South America, or anywhere else. None of those beliefs make you “an apostate.”

What makes one an apostate is claiming to know the truth while the leaders of the Church are wrong, and attempting to publicly correct them. That is what you are doing daily on your blogs, Brother Neville. And it’s leading directly toward apostasy. That’s why you need to stop.
I think that’s a mistake, for all the reasons I’ve explained. In my view, M2C is a false tradition that not only contradicts the teachings of the prophets, but contradicts the text and everything known about ancient Central America.
That’s a view you’re certainly free to hold. You’re just not free to accuse Church leaders and the organizations they oversee of “rejecting the prophets” because they disagree with you—at least, not without repercussions.
But these are merely differences of interpretation and opinion. None of this is personal, from my perspective. I have no problem with those who believe M2C. I don’t think they are apostates; I readily agree that they are faithful members of the Church, wonderful in every way.
If none of this is personal, then please stop making it personal by accusing those you disagree with of “censorship” and “rejecting the prophets.” Stop calling people you disagree with pejorative names like “the M2C citation cartel” and “M2C intellectuals.” Stop misrepresenting the arguments of those who disagree with you. And, if it’s all “merely differences of interpretation and opinion,” stop accusing people on the other side of bad faith and nefarious intent.
I only think the M2C citation cartel should follow the Church’s policy of neutrality and allow members of the Church (and investigators) to learn about alternative ideas that support the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah.

Basically, I oppose censorship of the teachings of the prophets and I support the Church’s position of neutrality. That’s why I freely recommend that people read the M2C material for comparison.
As I’ve explained before on this blog, the Church doesn’t have a “policy of neutrality” on Book of Mormon geography, nor are they under any obligation to give your views and opinions a platform. You’re certainly free to publish your views in print and online and to try to persuade people to believe that your “alternative views” are right, but the Church isn’t required to put them in any curricula or link to any of your sites.
Brother Dan is one of the most prominent censors. Before he was belatedly terminated from FARMS (after FARMS merged into the Maxwell Institute), FARMS had what I consider a well-deserved reputation for thin skin and ad hominem attacks. FARMS eventually disintegrated, but brother Dan took his donors and followers and created a new vehicle for his brand of rhetoric: The Interpreter Foundation.

There are many good articles on the Interpreter, interspersed with M2C apologetics and attacks on those who dare to question M2C. You can get a flavor for it here:
http://interpreterpeerreviews.blogspot.com/
Wow. Just…wow. After calling Daniel Peterson a “wonderful brother” and “great guy,” Neville unleashes this most unkind and uncharitable (as well as factually-incorrect) statement. Peterson’s (unjust and politically-motivated) termination from the Maxwell Institute was “belated”? (Late, coming after its useful time.) So, he should have been fired sooner? “Thin skin and ad hominem attacks”?

For over twenty-five years, FARMS defended the Church, the gospel, and the Book of Mormon against its critics, as well as doing some of the best research on the Book of Mormon in our time or any time, and this is how Jonathan Neville curb-stomps Daniel Peterson for his efforts?

If anyone has a “thin skin,” it’s Jonathan Neville, who apparently can’t distinguish between legitimate academic criticism and “ad hominem” attacks. Heartland publications and arguments have, indeed, been challenged by the Maxwell Institute under Daniel Peterson and by the Interpreter Foundation. Unlike Jonathan Neville’s wild-eyed conspiracy theories and accusations of “rejecting the prophets,” those published articles have been measured, well-researched, and (sadly, for Jonathan Neville) devastating to the Heartland position. (See, for example, Gregory L. Smith’s review of Neville’s claim about chiasmus in Alma 22.)

The sad apparent truth is that Jonathan Neville is not self-aware enough to understand how his rhetoric is perceived by others. He views himself as being on a righteous mission to get people to “accept the teachings of the prophets” that he considers to be divinely inspired, but his name-calling, his accusations of unfaithfulness, and his misrepresentation of the beliefs and arguments of those with whom he disagrees is the root cause of this entire conflict.

—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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