Refuting the errors of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland hoax

Saturday, December 28, 2019

January 2020 is a bad month to be Jonathan Neville

Jonathan Neville has three main gospel hobbyhorses that he rides:

  1. His insistence that the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon is the same hill as the one in New York state near Palmyra.
  2. His insistence that Joseph Smith received not one but two separate sets of plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon.
  3. His insistence that Joseph Smith used only the Nephite interpreters to translate the Book of Mormon of Mormon, that the interpreters were the only items called “Urim and Thummim,” and that Joseph did not also use a seer stone to translate.

All three of these claims run counter to what is taught by modern Church leaders and in modern Church publications. Neville instead relies on selected quotes from long-dead prophets and believes their statements were based on revelation, rather than on common belief and understanding.

The Book of Mormon is the Church’s Come, Follow Me course of study for 2020. In preparation for the coming year, the Ensign—the Church’s magazine for English-speaking adults—has published a series of resources on the Book of Mormon in the January 2020 issue. These resources directly contradict two of Neville’s pet theories.

The first is the infographic “Which Plates Did the Book of Mormon Come From?” (p. 34):
Which Plates Did the Book of Mormon Come From? Ensign January 2020 p. 34
According to the Church-published graphic, Mormon inserted the small plates of Nephi directly into his own plates of Mormon. This comports with Mormon’s comment in Words of Mormon 1:6, in which he declared that he would “take these plates,” refering to the small plates of Nephi, “and put them with the remainder of my record,” meaning the plates of Mormon.

There is no evidence from the scriptures, from Joseph Smith, or from the eyewitnesses to Joseph’s work that he had more than one set of plates. The Church’s infographic (and all the similar ones that it has previously produced, like this one) therefore show one set of plates. By insisting on the New York Cumorah, Jonathan Neville has painted himself into a corner and has been forced to come up with the singular, unconventional theory that Joseph had two sets of plates.

The second resource published in the January 2020 Ensign is the article “The Translation of the Book of Mormon: A Marvel and a Wonder,” by Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr.

Elder Curtis has been a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy since April 2011 and currently serves on the Scriptures Committee and as Church Historian and Recorder and as the Executive Director of the Church History Department. Jonathan Neville believes that the Church History Department is part of the “M2C* citation cartel” conspiracy that purposely acts to “deprive members of the Church of ‘good information’ solely to promote their particular agendas.” I’m not certain if Neville believes that Elder Curtis—whom Neville likely sustains as one of the general authorities of the Church—is part of the “M2C citation cartel,” but Elder Curtis directly repudiates Neville’s rejection of Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon on page 40 of his article:
The Translation of the Book of Mormon: A Marvel and a Wonder Ensign January 2020 p. 40
The “interpreters” used by Joseph during the translation process included the “two stones in silver bows” that were deposited by Moroni with the plates (see Joseph Smith—History 1:35). In addition to these two seer stones, Joseph used at least one other seer stone that the Lord had provided.

David Whitmer, whose family provided a place for Joseph and Oliver to complete the work of translation, provided this additional information: “Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.”

All of us who have tried to read illuminated words on a screen can understand why Joseph would have used a hat or something else to screen out extraneous light when he was reading the words on the seer stone.
LeGrand Curtis, Church Historian and Recorder and as the Executive Director of the Church History Department, accepts David Whitmer’s eyewitness testimony that Joseph Smith used a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon.

Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the living prophet, also accepts David Whitmer’s eyewitness testimony that Joseph Smith used a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon.

David Whitmer’s testimony has been reprinted in numerous Church publications and used in Church visitors centers and museums to describe the translation process of the Book of Mormon.

Who doesn’t accept David Whitmer’s eyewitness testimony? Jonathan Neville, a retired attorney and author of numerous self-published books and blogs with offbeat and outlandish theories about Church history and doctrine.

Who’s the one who is out of step here?

—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. The two sets of plates theory is just bizarre. I have trouble understanding how any of Neville's "evidence" possibly supports the theory, for example his statement that "we know" that the small plates were not in the stone box because of D&C 9 and 10. I am also not clear on why a belief in a New York Cumorah necessitates the creation of this two plates theory. Could you please explain?

    1. Neville’s “two sets of plates” theory is the result of two beliefs that he holds:

      (1) He insists that the late stories of the cave of plates in Cumorah describe a physical visit by Joseph Smith and others (rather than a vision), and that was the cave was where the small plates of Nephi were kept.

      (2) He has taken David Whitmer’s 1887 statement about meeting one of the three Nephites on the road from Harmony to Fayette and has interpreted it (without evidence) to mean that the man was carrying the “Harmony plates” (what Neville calls the plates of Mormon) back to the hill Cumorah where he would retrieve small plates of Nephi and take them to Fayette for Joseph to translate.

      It’s a wacky theory that’s bound up in his insistence on the New York location for Cumorah and his selective acceptance of specific statements that support it. (He accepts the late, third-hand Cumorah cave statements; he also accepts David Whitmer’s 1887 account of meeting one of the Three Nephites, while simultaneously rejecting Whitmer’s eyewitness account of how Joseph translated the Book of Mormon.)

      Here are a couple of Neville’s blog posts that explain the reasoning behind his “two sets of plates” theory:

    2. Thank you, this was very helpful!

  2. The two church infographics you provide contradict each other on the placement of Nephi through Omni in the gold plates, as well as the placement of the sealed portion. Which is correct, if either? And why should we believe that the small plates were bound with the plates of Mormon based on an infographic? Do these get verified for accuracy by revelation? Could they be based on the assumptions of the person responsible for them rather than on historical data or direct revelation? D&C 10:41 tells us that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mosiah before the small plates of Nephi. Neither of the infographics really reflects that sequence, although he could have skipped around I suppose. Does Mormon saying that he will place the small plates WITH his other plates necessarily mean that he would bind them together? Do we have any better evidence that they were? I'm not opposed to them being bound together, but I would like to see some unambiguous evidence. If there is none, then Neville could be right. Why not?

    1. Stan,

      The placement of the small plates of Nephi within the plates of Mormon is an open question. That Mormon *did* place them with his own plates is not. (My personal belief is that he placed them *after* his own abridgment of the large plates.)

      The best evidence that Mormon placed them or bound them together is that not a *single* witness to the translation of the Book of Mormon ever indicated that Joseph Smith had two sets of plates, neither do the published statements from the Three and Eight Witnesses indicate that Joseph had more than one set of plates.

      Please see Larry Morris’s statement at the August 2019 conference when he was asked about two sets of plates. (Morris just published a major book on the subject with Oxford University Press.)

  3. You certainly could be right that they were bound together, but that doesn't necessarily follow from Mormon's statement that he would "put them with the remainder of my record." I recently "put" my 1981 triple with my 1830 replica Book of Mormon, but it was just a matter of placing one on top of the other. Even if "put them with" means "bind them with" we still have to figure out what "remainder of my record" means. Everyone assumes it means the plates of Mormon, and that may be true. The other possibility, based on verses 5 and 9 of Words of Mormon, is that the remainder of his record refers only to what he is currently writing in Words of Mormon. If he did bind the small plates together with the plates of Mormon, I agree that they were most likely at the end, with Words of Mormon finishing up the record.

    1. I agree with you that the Book of Mormon text is unclear on this point and could be read multiple ways (which is why Jonathan Neville’s theory has managed to get the acceptance that it has).

      What clinches it, I believe, is the eyewitness descriptions of Joseph Smith only having set of plates. This indicates that Mormon did, indeed, combine his record with the small plates of Nephi into a single set of plates.

  4. Ok....
    Think on this....when Joseph finished translating the plates in Harmony....that was it...they came to the end of the record. This is the reason for him praying to see if the Lord wanted him to go back to retranslate that which was lost (116 pages)....why would Joseph do that if there was more records to translate from that came with Mormons abridgment...either bound or not? earlier discourses about appealing to the Lord through prayer he said that it behooves us to search out what we have on a given subject before we apply prayer....with that understanding Joseph should have asked about ANY plates he did not translate in their care at the time he wanted to go back to and redo the Plates of Lehi.....the Revelation in D&C informs us God was going to provide the information on the small plates of Nephi for him in place thereof....


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