Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Two answers for Heartlanders

This is a response to Jonathan Neville’s August 6, 2019, blog post “2 questions for the M2C citation cartel.”* (Neville persists in using the disparaging—and inaccurate—term “citation cartel” to refer to those scholars and writers who don’t agree with him and his comrades who advocate for the Heartlander Book of Mormon theory.)

Neville’s post wasn’t addressed to anyone in particular, but it appears to be based on material that has appeared on this humble blog, so your corespondent thought it would be appropriate to respond.

Neville writes:
Some of the M2C intellectuals complain when I observe that they are repudiating the teachings of the prophets.
Complain is too strong a word. I simply submit that his use of the term repudiate is loaded and inaccurate (as I’ll get into in a moment).
They say they don't care about "dead prophets" (an unbelievably disrespectful term they use often), but only about the living prophets, who (according to the intellectuals) agree with them.
I don’t know who the “they” are, but I’ve never claimed to “not care about ‘dead prophets.’” Rather, I’ve claimed that Neville and other Heartlanders cling to the words of dead prophets and rationalize their disbelief in the teachings of living prophets. (Neville himself does the latter in the very blog post I’m reviewing, as you’ll see below.)

Neville repeatedly cites the writings and sermons of Joseph Fielding Smith, Mark E. Petersen, Marion G. Romney, and other long-dead prophets and apostles who made statements that he agrees with and which he believes prove his beliefs to be correct. Rarely does he cite the statements and teachings of living prophets and apostles—probably because not one of them has made unequivocal statements about the location of the hill Cumorah. Spencer W. Kimball warned about that kind of behavior:
“Apostasy usually begins with question and doubt and criticism….

“They who garnish the sepulchres of the dead prophets begin now by stoning the living ones. They return to the pronouncements of the dead leaders and interpret them to be incompatible with present programs. They convince themselves that there are discrepancies between the practices of the deceased and the leaders of the present.… They allege love for the gospel and the Church but charge that leaders are a little ‘off the beam’! … Next they say that while the gospel and the Church are divine, the leaders are fallen. Up to this time it may be a passive thing, but now it becomes an active resistance, and frequently the blooming apostate begins to air his views and to crusade.… He now begins to expect persecution and adopts a martyr complex, and when finally excommunication comes he associates himself with other apostates to develop and strengthen cults. At this stage he is likely to claim revelation for himself, revelations from the Lord directing him in his interpretations and his actions. These manifestations are superior to anything from living leaders, he claims.” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982], 462.)
(I trust that Neville will forgive President Kimball for using the “unbelievably disrespectful” term dead prophets.)

The words in boldface type in President Kimball’s statement reflect where Neville is at this stage of his advocacy for the Heartland hoax. His (dozens of) blogs are filled his disparagement of the modern direction of the Church in its curriculum, its visitors centers, its missionary program, its published histories, and its website. He believes that, in not affirming that the hill Cumorah is the same hill in New York, the Church is “a little off the beam”, led by “M2C intellectuals” who (purportedly) withhold information deliberately from the Brethren. He justifies his criticisms of the modern Church by using selected teachings of long-dead leaders that have never been accepted as revealed doctrine of the Church.
In fact, they claim the living prophets have hired them, these intellectuals, to guide the Church.
Who are the “they” here, Brother Neville? You’ve repeatedly made this claim, and yet you never provide any citations to back up it up. The one person you have fingered, Daniel C. Peterson, has specifically denied that he has ever said or written any such thing, writing that your assertion “is flatly and unequivocally false. Neither I nor anybody I know has ever made such an arrogant and ridiculous claim.”

So, it’s time to “put up or shut up,” Brother Neville: Who said this, when, and in what context?
Here are two questions we'll keep in mind this week.

1. What is the correct term to use when an intellectual says the prophets are wrong?
I reject Neville’s question, based entirely on its loaded terminology. No believing Latter-day Saint “intellectual” asserts that “the prophets are wrong.” Rather, Church leaders, scholars, and (most) members understand that there is a difference between revelation and personal belief, between inspired declarations of doctrine and statements based on assumption and widespread interpretation. (Elder D. Todd Christofferson taught about this in April 2012 general conference.) Statements by previous church leaders—including Oliver Cowdery and other early saints—that the hill Cumorah is the same hill in New York where Joseph Smith received the plates are not based on revelation.
The M2C intellectuals try to frame their position nicely by claiming all the prophets who have taught the New York Cumorah were merely expressing their opinions. Unfortunately, they were wrong because they, the M2C intellectuals, know that the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is somewhere in Mesoamerica.
This is clearly an overstatement. I could just as easily claim that Heartlanders try to frame their position nicely by claiming all the prophets who have taught the New York Cumorah were speaking from inspired, authoritative revelation. They must have been right because they, the Heartlanders, know that the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in New York.

No one who ascribes to a Mesoamerican geographical setting for the Book of Mormon “knows” that the hill Cumorah was there. It’s a theory based on the internal and external evidence. Lacking any revealed information on the location of Book of Mormon lands, the descriptions of the lands and cultures in the text appear to most closely match the lands and ancient civilizations found in southern Mexico and Guatemala. If a better candidate location presented itself, scholarly attention would turn to that location.
Here's the google [sic] definition of repudiate.



refuse to accept or be associated with.
"she has repudiated policies associated with previous party leaders"
synonyms: reject, renounce, abandon, forswear, give up, turn one's back on, have nothing more to do with, wash one's hands of, have no more truck with, abjure, disavow, recant, desert, discard, disown, cast off, lay aside, cut off, rebuff; More

deny the truth or validity of.
"the minister repudiated allegations of human rights abuses"
synonyms: deny, refute, contradict, rebut, dispute, disclaim, disavow; More

The definition precisely fits the position of these M2C intellectuals. When it comes to the New York Cumorah, they reject, renounce, disavow, disown, deny, refute, contradict, and every other synonym.
Repudiate is another loaded term. The New York Cumorah is Jonathan Neville’s Fourteenth Article of Faith; therefore, anyone who disagrees with him is, from his point of view, “repudiating the prophets.”

I would assert, rather, that one cannot repudiate a belief that was never accepted as a revealed truth in the first place.
If there's another term that better reflects the position of the M2C intellectuals about the New York Cumorah, I'd like someone to tell me. If it makes sense, then I'll use that term instead of repudiate.

But until then, it seems obvious to me and everyone who reads their writings that the M2C intellectuals at FairMormon, Book of Mormon Central, etc., outright repudiate the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah.
Respectfully disagree would be a better phrase, but Neville would likely still twist it to claim that “M2C intellectuals disagree with the prophets!” As I described above, there’s a larger issue here of discerning when the teachings of prophets are to be accepted as the will and mind of the Lord and when they’re speaking as men. In the absence of any revelation or official statement from the Brethren on the location of the hill Cumorah, it’s safe to respectfully hold a view that’s different than some of past prophets and apostles have held.

Next we get into Neville’s self-justification for rejecting the Church’s current position on Book of Mormon geography:
2. What is the significance of the anonymous Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography?

There are two features of the Gospel Topics Essays generally that put them in a strange category, but this particular one on geography is in a category of its own.

1. The essays are anonymous. This means no one takes responsibility for them. They were written by a committee, which is obvious (as I'll discuss below). Once approved, the essays are just posted on churchofjesuschrist.org and everyone is supposed to think they are authoritative, but in what sense?
Please note that Neville falsely claims that “no one takes responsibility” for the essays. Also note that he skirts right over the key point at issue here: Approved by whom?

The introduction to the Gospel Topics essays answers this question:
“Recognizing that today so much information about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be obtained from questionable and often inaccurate sources, officials of the Church began in 2013 to publish straightforward, in-depth essays on a number of topics. The purpose of these essays, which have been approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has been to gather accurate information from many different sources and publications and place it in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org, where the material can more easily be accessed and studied by Church members and other interested parties.”
This is far from Neville’s claim that “no one takes responsibility for them”! It is certainly true that the essays were written by individuals or groups who were selected by Church leaders, and what they wrote went through a process of review and rewriting, but the final product, as published on the Church’s website, was approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Presumably they fall somewhere short of the scriptures (although some contradict the scriptures in important ways). Are they more or less authoritative than General Conference addresses? What about General Conference addresses by members of the First Presidency? Do these essays override everything ever spoken or written prior to their undated posting on the Church's web page?
The First Presidency has never produced such a “ranking” of authoritative sources. Rather, the Church’s position has been that the teachings of modern prophets supersede anything written by previous prophets. Elder James E. Faust taught in October 1994 general conference:
“The scriptures and doctrines of the Church are not, as Peter warned, ‘of any private interpretation.’ Great temporal and spiritual strength flows from following those who have the keys of the kingdom of God in our time. Personal strength and power result from obedience to eternal principles taught by the living legates of the Lord. May the Spirit of God rest upon us as we follow the living oracles.”
There are literally no answers to these questions that I can find anywhere. If someone knows of an official framework that prioritizes these essays over the scriptures, over General Conference addresses, or puts them in any sort of category that we can make sense of them, I'd like to know about it.
The answers are there; Jonathan Neville just chooses to ignore them because they conflict with his deeply-held personal beliefs. His cognitive bias is preventing him from accepting new information.
This is important because our M2C intellectuals cite the geography essay for the purpose of overriding all prior teachings about the New York Cumorah--even though the essay doesn't even mention Cumorah. They specifically confer more authority on the essay than they do on General Conference addresses.
Do you see the self-justification that Neville has ginned up? The Gospel Topics essay on Book of Mormon geography flatly states, “The Church does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas.” It gives no exceptions or exemptions. Neville responds, “Well, the essay doesn’t mention Cumorah!” So what? It doesn’t mention the cities of Zarahemla, Nephi, or Bountiful either, nor the river Sidon, nor the narrow neck of land. Why should Neville get to carve out an exception to the blanket just because it’s important to his theology?
I frequently hear from readers who have questions about the essays generally, and about this one specifically. I respond that, from what I can gather, they are intended as guidance but have no priority over the scriptures or General Conference addresses. Hence, these essays are a framework for further discussion and analysis, with individuals reaching their own conclusions. They were never intended to enable certain intellectuals to claim official endorsement of their positions that contradict the teachings of the prophets.
But, since the essays are “approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,” they are “the teachings of the prophets.” They have priority over Neville’s (and everyone else’s) interpretation of the scriptures and previous prophets. Certainly there can be “further discussion and analysis,” but that doesn’t mean that Neville can simply brush them aside with a wave of his hand and muttered complaints about committees.
But again, I could be wrong. Maybe these anonymous essays are the most official of all Church doctrine, with everything else subservient. I just can't tell from any official source.
This statement is a perfect example of the logical fallacy of the False Dilemma. “Either,” Neville tells us, “they’re for guidance only and have no priority or they are the most official of all Church doctrine.” There are, of course, other alternatives between those two extremes, but Neville is unwilling or unable to consider them.

My personal view is that the Gospel Topics essays represent the position of the Church, as approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, in the absence of specific revelation on the subjects they cover. Without a specific revelation, they are, of course, subject to revision as new information becomes available. Which bring us to Neville’s next point:
2. The essays are subject to change at any time without notice. As I've shown in the links below, this geography essay has already been substantially changed once without notice and could be changed again at any moment. Other essays have also been modified without notice.

What does this say for the authority of the essay?

In my view, the susceptibility to change makes these essays useful only as a starting place for discussion. How could they be authoritative if they can be changed at any time, especially without explanation?
Nothing published by the Church is set in stone; everything is subject to revision as new truths are discovered, either by revelation through the Holy Spirit or by human learning (which is the result of the light of Christ). Joseph Smith even revised the Book of Mormon for the second (1837) and third (1840) editions, and he revised his published revelations between the 1833 Book of Commandments and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. Revision does not compromise authority.

The Church’s handbook for stake presidents and bishops (Handbook 1) is continually revised to deal with new issues and better handle old ones. Is the handbook “not authoritative” because it’s subject to change? Can bishops simply ignore it, considering it just “a starting place for discussion”? Of course not.
The change to the first version of the geography essay corrected some obvious mistakes and misleading information, but the revision retained some of the mistakes. Such a process is an inevitable result of an anonymous committee writing the essay with input from only one point-of-view, that of the M2C intellectuals who have long since repudiated the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah.
And here we see Neville once again implying that the members First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are easily-manipulated victims of conspirators operating inside Church Headquarters. If we take his statement above at face value, the Brethren must be uneducated, uninformed men who simply rubber-stamp whatever is put in front of them.

That is, of course, nonsense. The Brethren are quite well-informed and the Gospel Topics essays represent many hours of discussion and revision to strike the right balance.
The geography essay purports to establish an official position of neutrality. I've discussed how the so-called policy of "neutrality" is actually implemented and enforced to mean the Church is neutral about where in Mesoamerica the events took place. There is no evidence of any neutrality that even acknowledges, let alone accommodates, the consistent and persistent teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah.
FALSE. I’ve debunked Neville’s “neutrality” claim now several times, but he persists in telling this untruth because it suits his narrative.
We could discuss other essays as well. The original objective, as I understood it, was to set out some facts and arguments regarding topics that have been discussed for many years without any official acknowledgement of the issues. In that sense, the essays are useful.

The problem is, the essays have taken one point of view and presented it as the "correct" interpretation. That creates all kinds of problems.
Neville’s understanding of the Gospel Topics essays is completely at odds with the First Presidency’s description of what role they serve. If he would only take the time to read the introduction to the essays (quoted above), it would clear up his misunderstanding.

I suspect that he knows that he’s mistaken, but his cognitive bias is preventing him from accepting this fact because of the implications it would have for his assertion that the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon is in New York.

—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. Leonard Arrington's memoir, "Adventures of a Church Historian" is instructive here. He describes his frustration at being an historian in an often dogmatic environment -- his efforts at doing "real history" were often stymied at the top, because they were not 'wonderful' enough. His description of the most conservative voices amongst the top three and twelve being the one accommodated so as to achieve unanimity was eye-opening, to say the least -- that such an outlook filters down to the general membership, and persists, is unsurprising.

    It appears that over the decades, those conservative voices have been replaced by voices more open to a full-bodied historical process and picture, warts and all, and not just those easy-to-swallow, Sunday School stories that require no (that avoid?) critical thinking. The GTEs reflect this, and we are better for it.


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