Refuting the errors of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland hoax

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The “fundamentals” of a heterodox faction within the Church

The Lord’s Church in all ages has struggled with dissenters—those who agree with at least some of the basic principles of the gospel, but who have made one or a few specific causes the center of their faith. These heterodox groups challenge the teachings of the Lord’s living prophets and apostles, claiming to have special insight or knowledge that other Church members and leaders don’t have.

While their initial desire may be to simply guide the Church and its leaders back onto the “correct path,” more often than not their fixation on esoteric or false doctrines leads to frustration, disagreement, and ultimately separation—apostasy from the Lord’s Church and the establishment of their own faith group. We’ve seen this happen recently with the cult of Denver Snuffer, who advocates for a gnostic form of Mormonism that emphasizes the Second Comforter. (See Cassandra Hedelius’s 2015 FairMormon Conference presentation for more about this.) Probably the best-known groups in this category are offshoots from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that continue to practice plural marriage.

The “Heartland” movement is a blossoming heterodox group. Members of the Church who believe in the Heartland hoax are, for now, practicing within the faith, but their insistence on beliefs that are not revealed doctrines is rapidly reaching a breaking point.

An example of this is clearly seen in Jonathan Neville’s July 10, 2019, blog post, “The fundamentals - Church history.” Fundamentals are beliefs that are “basic principles, rules, laws, or the like, that serve as the groundwork of a system”; in other words, they are the foundation for a belief system—one that has the potential to take prominence over the true foundation of living apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20).

These are the five principles that Neville considers to be “Fundamentals in Church history”:
  1. Joseph Smith obtained metal plates from a stone box on the Hill Cumorah in western New York.
  2. Using the Urim and Thummim that were in the stone box, he translated the engravings on the plates into English while in Harmony, PA.
  3. He returned the Harmony plates to a divine messenger who took them back to the Hill Cumorah.
  4. In Fayette, NY, Joseph translated the plates of Nephi.
  5. The Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is the same hill in New York from which Joseph got the plates.
Few Latter-day Saints would disagree with the first item in Neville’s list. There are, of course, some in the Church who believe that the Book of Mormon is entirely fictional and that Joseph Smith never had ancient metal plates at all, but they represent a separate heterodox group that is out of harmony with the teachings of living prophets.

His second “fundamental” point is partly true—Joseph did use the the Nephite interpreters, which he and other Latter-day Saints later called “Urim and Thummim,” to translate the Book of Mormon. Eyewitness accounts of the translation process by David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and others also indicate that Joseph found it easier to translate using a separate spiritual device—his seer stone. This is widely accepted by Church leaders and Church historians. Heartlanders do not believe it, however, and Neville himself has recently criticized the Church for promoting this historical fact.

Neville’s third and fourth “fundamentals” are grounded in his singular, eccentric belief that Joseph Smith received not one, but two sets of plates from the angel Moroni. Neville calls these “the Harmony plates” and “the plates of Nephi.”

It is absolutely vital to point out that there is not a single individual in Church history who ever claimed there were two sets of plates. Jonathan Neville, who is borderline fanatical about believing “the teachings of the prophets about the New York location of the hill Cumorah,” ignores the teachings of the prophets in his assertion that there were two separate sets of records given to Joseph Smith.

  • Joseph Smith never claimed there were two separate sets of plates.
  • Oliver Cowdery never claimed there were two separate sets of plates.
  • David Whitmer, Martin Harris, Emma Smith, and every other witness of the translation of the Book of Mormon never claimed there were two separate sets of plates.
  • No modern prophet or apostle has ever claimed there were two separate sets of plates (including Joseph Fielding Smith, whom Heartlanders believe was authoritative and virtually infallible in everything he wrote).
  • No other Church historian, trained or otherwise, has ever claimed there were two separate sets of plates.

Now, just because “everyone is out of step but Jonathan” doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s wrong. Perhaps he’s hit upon something new and important, something that other historians should take seriously and consider as a previously unexplored possibility.

But making such a claim requires scholarly humility—the willingness to put forward one’s views tentatively and engage with other historians on the strengths and weaknesses of one’s argument and persuade others to adopt one’s views. Instead, we see Jonathan Neville suddenly declaring his idiosyncratic views to be “fundamental” to Church history. That approach is not only going to keep one from being taking seriously at the discussion table, it’s also a step on the road to apostasy.

Which brings us to Neville’s fifth and final “fundamental” point, which this blog has repeatedly demonstrated to be a common belief, sincerely held by prophets, apostles, and members of the Church, but not one that is based on any revelation from God.

When a person’s “fundamental” beliefs are unconventional assertions, it’s a clear sign that he or she is a crank (“an unbalanced person who is overzealous in the advocacy of a private cause”—def. 3).

We’ve had many cranks in the Church since 1830; Jonathan Neville is merely the latest in a long line of ark-steadiers.

—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.

4 comments:

  1. I really hate it when extra light and knowledge (e.g., the seer stone, solid historical analysis...) conflict with codified tradition.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Indeed:

      "But the[re] has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation.… Even the Saints are slow to understand[.] I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to recieve the things of God, but we frequently see some of them after suffering all they have for the work of God will fly to p[ie]ces like glass as soon as any thing Comes that is Contrary to their traditions." — Joseph Smith, 21 January 1844

      (Reported by Wilford Woodruff: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-21-january-1844-as-reported-by-wilford-woodruff/3)

      Delete
  2. Just to clarify, one can subscribe to the heartland model without being a fundamentalist or a heterodox or a radical or an apostate or whatever.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If, by that, you mean that a Latter-day Saint can believe that the Book of Mormon took place in the American Midwest without being heterodox/apostate, then yes, I completely agree with that.

      One cannot, however, ascribe to the Heartland hoax that Jonathan Neville and Rod Meldrum are peddling and avoid that label. Their brand of belief is exclusivist, fundamentalist, closed-minded, nationalistic, jingoistic, and deeply lacking in responsible scholarship and science. (See the previous posts on this blog for dozens of examples of this.)

      —Peter

      Delete

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