Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Friday, August 9, 2019

Neville misrepresents speakers at the FairMormon conference

Jonathan Neville attended this week’s FairMormon conference in Provo, and he posted some of his thoughts on the first day’s presentations. Neville being Neville, he couldn’t help but misrepresent some of the people he disagrees with.

(He also complained that “It cost me $50 to see 7 presentations.” FairMormon is a non-profit organization that pays for most of the costs of the conference through admission. That’s different than Heartlander expos which are for-profit ventures that generate revenue from vendor booths that peddle energy healing, emergency supplies, ammunition, and so forth, which allows them to keep the admission prices low.)

According to Neville, “nothing notable” was said at the presentations (!), “except two funny incidents during the Q&A”:
One speaker discussed the Eight Witnesses. During Q&A, someone asked what he thought about the two sets of plates (referring to the Harmony and Fayette plates). He said he was unfamiliar with that idea (naturally, because he only reads M2C* material).

But Scott Gordon, the President of FairMormon who knows about the two sets of plates because he was in a presentation I gave about that history, leaned into the microphone and said, roughly, “That would make things more complicated.” The audience laughed.

Readers here know how the two sets of plates makes things more complicated for M2C advocates. If the Hill Cumorah really is in New York, their whole theory collapses.
The speaker in question was Larry Morris, who earlier this year published his book, A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon, through Oxford University Press.

It’s fair for Neville to criticize what Morris and Gordon said. It’s not fair for Neville to misquote Morris and Gordon and then disparage them based on things they didn’t say.

Here’s a transcript of that section of Morris’s presentation, which I created from the recorded video stream of the FairMormon conference. Since Neville loves comparison tables, I’ll put his version side-by-side with what was really said:
Neville’s version Transcript from video (45:24–46:00)
Someone asked what he thought about the two sets of plates (referring to the Harmony and Fayette plates). Larry Morris (reading aloud from the question card): “A blogger has argued for two set[s] of plates, one set of plates seen by the Eight Witnesses and the other by the Three Witnesses.”
He said he was unfamiliar with that idea (naturally, because he only reads M2C material). Morris (to audience): I looked pretty carefully at all the empirical accounts of the plates, and I believe that there was one set of plates and one set only. (pause) Now, I don’t know why someone would argue that there were two sets of plates.
Scott Gordon…leaned into the microphone and said, roughly, “That would make things more complicated.” Scott Gordon (standing just off to the side): That’s more work. (chuckling)

Gordon (louder, seeing that Morris missed his comment): That’s just more work.

Morris (understanding Gordon’s joke): Yeah, it is more work. (both chuckling)
It’s Neville’s singular theory that Joseph Smith translated from, not one, but two sets of plates. Larry Morris didn’t say that he was “unfamiliar” with Neville’s theory; he said that his extensive research on the Witnesses lead him to believe “there was one set of plates and one set only.” This has nothing whatsoever to do with Morris “only read[ing] M2C material.” (How could Neville know what Morris reads and doesn’t read?) I’ll go out on a limb here and assert that Morris knows far more about the Eight Witnesses than Neville does, but Neville chalks the entire thing up to Morris not reading widely enough!

Neville goes on to misrpresent Scott Gordon, claiming Gordon said Neville’s theory is “more complicated” and using that as a springboard to evangelize for a New York Cumorah (his Fourteenth Article of Faith). Gordon actually said that two sets of plates would be “more work.” What, exactly, he meant by that isn’t obvious from the video, but clearly he was joking because he laughed and Morris laughed with him. Neville distorted Gordon’s words and his intent.

Neville next misrepresented Ben Spackman’s comments. Spackman’s talk was on the scriptural creation accounts and the nature of revelation to prophets; in it, he expressed his concerns about a “fundamentalist” view of revelation and scriptural interpretation held by some Latter-day Saints.
The second funny incident was during another Q&A. The speaker was asked what he thought about the Heartland movement. I’m told he replied, “They’re a bunch of crazy fundamentalists.”

That comment says it all. Now, if you still believe what the prophets have taught, you’re ridiculed by the FairMormon intellectuals as a “fundamentalist.”

That pretty well sums up the M2C citation cartel.
What’s particularly awful about Neville’s misrepresentation here is that he didn’t even hear what Spackman himself said; rather, he he was “told” by someone else. Neville is repeating a garbled, second-hand account as fact and using the (misquoted) words of a single individual to disparage an entire school of thought which which he disagress.

Here’s what actually was said:
Neville’s version Transcript from video (49:03–50:08)
  Ben Spackman (reading the question card to himself and chuckling): Alright, we’ll take the gloves off. (clearly intending this metaphor as a joke)
The speaker was asked what he thought about the Heartland movement. Spackman (reading aloud from the question card): “Please name the group pushing ‘fundamentalism.’”

Spackman (aside to Scott Gordon): I’m sorry, Scott. (both laughing)
I’m told he replied, “They’re a bunch of crazy fundamentalists.” Spackman (to audience): There is a group that goes by the name the Heartlanders. They marry a particular geographic interpretation of the Book of Mormon—which is absolutely fine; you can think whatever you want about Book of Mormon geography—but they marry it with right-wing constitutionalist politics, young-earth creationism, an authoritarian view of prophets that is absolutely absolutist—it’s a “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”—and they claim that anyone who disagrees with them is apostate. They have taken to naming Church History [Department] employees and BYU professors who are “off base.” I think the Heartlanders are dangerous fundamentalists. (pause) Bottom line.

(Applause, scattered conversation among the audience.)
Note that Spackman wasn’t asked “what he thought about the Heartland movement”; he was asked for examples of groups among the saints who were “pushing fundamentalism.” Spackman was the one who brought up Heartlanders.

More importantly, though, Spackman did not call Heartlanders “crazy fundamentalists”; he called them “dangerous fundamentalists,” a distinction that is not only clear but also important. And he backed up the term dangerous by giving specific examples of the kinds of thinking and behavior displayed by Neville and his associates in the Heartland movement.
If Jonathan Neville is going to criticize what others have said, the very least he can do is quote them accurately. The instances above are prime examples of the Strawman Fallacy—Neville quoted what he believed other people said, then attacked the misquotation.

Neville continually preaches to his readers about bias confirmation. He should be more aware of when he himself is confirming his biases.

—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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