Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Letter VII has nothing to do with Oliver Cowdery being “truthful”

One of the most difficult aspects of reading Jonathan Neville’s blogs is how disconnected from reality most of his assertions are. (This is, in fact, the entire reason why this blog was created—to refute Neville’s constant, continual, repeated erroneous claims.)

A sublime example of Neville’s disconnect can be found in his latest web page, “Oliver was truthful about everything except…,” the publication of which he announced on July 1, 2019.

This page begins with a statement (in boldface type) that is completely, utterly, and wholly untrue:
Those who reject Letter VII cite no reasons other than their preference for a different location for the Hill Cumorah.
Firstly, no one who believes in a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon “rejects” Oliver Cowdery’s Letter VII. We accept it as one of many things Oliver Cowdery wrote, some of which were inspired and some of which represented his personal beliefs. We just don’t believe it’s infallible or revealed by God.

Jonathan Neville and other Heartlanders, on the other hand, have elevated Letter VII to the status of canon scripture in all but name only. It has become their gospel hobby horse, and they ride it like it was the Pony Express. (President Joseph F. Smith, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Elder Boyd K. Packer, and many other prophets and apostles have warned of the dangers of “gospel hobbies”; Heartlanders would do well to heed their counsel.)

Secondly, the reasons for not accepting Letter VII as a revealed doctrinal statement on the location of the hill Cumorah go well beyond a mere “preference.” Jonathan Neville knows this, because he spent quite a bit of time only a year ago engaging in the comments on Stephen Smoot’s blog post, “Seven Reasons Why Letter VII Is Not A Heartlander Silver Bullet.”

Jonathan Neville either has a horrible memory or he is lying in his opening statement.

He continues:
[Oliver] had been commanded by revelation to select materials to publish. All eight of Oliver’s letters about history are accepted by Church historians as important insights into the early events of the Church.…

Mesoamerican advocates expect you to believe that Oliver Cowdery could faithfully record the entire Book of Mormon, most of the Book of Moses, and much of Church history. Oliver could faithfully edit and publish two Church newspapers, the Book of Commandments, and the original Doctrine and Covenants. He could accurately write the statement for the Three Witnesses. Of all the writing he did, you're supposed to believe he was faithful and accurate except for a few paragraphs in one letter, solely because those paragraphs contradict the opinions of the scholars.
The problem with Neville’s dramatic assertion is, as Brother Smoot pointed out in his blog post, “Oliver Cowdery’s Messenger and Advocate letters contain factual errors and embellishments (which Heartlanders conveniently ignore).” Smoot explained:
A problem with the Cowdery letters that Heartlanders routinely ignore or downplay is the fact that they contain glaring errors and embellishments. The most obvious example of this is that Oliver was completely silent about the First Vision. The way Oliver tells the story in Letters III and IV, in the year 1823 (!) Joseph Smith was confused by the religious sects and denominations fighting for converts around him and so retired to his bedroom, prayed, and was visited by the angel Moroni, which event kicked off the Restoration. This version of events contradicts Joseph Smith’s own official history, his 1832 journal entry (written in his own hand), and his private retellings of the First Vision, in which he placed the religious excitement in the years 1818–1820 and was visited by God the Father, Jesus Christ, and a host of angels—not a solitary visit from Moroni.
So here’s the $64 question, Brother Neville: Do you believe “Oliver was being truthful” when he claimed that Joseph Smith’s first encounter with the divine was in 1823 when he prayed about his religious confusion and was visited by Moroni?

If you don’t believe that, you’ve just “rejected” Oliver Cowdery’s writings, something you claim only “M2C* intellectuals” do.

If you don’t believe that, you’ve just admitted that Oliver could have been mistaken in some of things he wrote in his Messenger and Advocate letters—therefore he could have been mistaken in his claim that the hill near Joseph Smith’s New York home was the same hill Cumorah described in the Book of Mormon.

You can’t have it both ways, Brother Neville. Either Oliver Cowdery was 100% correct in everything he wrote in his letters, or he was at least occasionally in error.

In his web page, Neville then produces one of the most baffling, poorly-thought-out representations I’ve ever seen him publish. He explains at the top, “Here is the chronology. Everything that is okay is marked green. The items the scholars object to is marked red.
Table from Jonathan Neville's blog post at www.bookofmormoncentralamerica.com/p/oliver-was-truthful-except.html
Click to enlarge.
As I discussed above, Neville’s claim that “the scholars object to” some of Oliver Cowdery’s writings is nonsense and nonsensical. No one “objects” to anything that Oliver wrote; responsible scholars and historians simply don’t believe that Oliver was inerrant in everything he wrote.

Worse, though, is Neville’s selective list of cherry-picked events from Oliver Cowdery’s career. He fails to mention things that Oliver Cowdery did, said, and wrote with which Neville himself would disagree or, at the very least, think Oliver was misguided:

  • Was Oliver following the Lord’s instructions correctly when he tried to translate a portion of the Book of Mormon and failed? The Lord chastised him for his “misunderstanding” and “fear” (D&C 9:5–11).
  • Was Oliver right when he was briefly influenced by Hiram Page and his seer stone? (D&C 28)
  • Was Oliver correct in all the historical claims he made in his Messenger and Advocate letters? (See above.)
  • Was Oliver telling the truth when he urged the enemies of the Church to file lawsuits against its leaders? When he accused Joseph Smith of adultery? When he declared that he would not be governed by any authority or revelation in his temporal affairs? (He was excommunicated in 1838 on these charges, among many others.)

Make no mistake: Oliver Cowdery was a great man and, while he served faithfully, a great leader of the Church. He was chosen by revelation to write for Joseph Smith as Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon. He was called by revelation to be one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. He was called by revelation as the Second Elder of the Church at its founding and as assistant president in 1834. He received the keys of the priesthood, including the sealing keys, in April 1836 from divine beings at the Kirtland Temple.

But Oliver was not infallible.

And Letter VII is still not an inerrant, inspired revelation from God, despite Jonathan Neville and other purveyors of the Heartland hoax virtually turning it into an object of worship.

—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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