Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Jonathan Neville vs. Royal Skousen

Royal Skousen’s latest volume from the Critical Text of the Book of Mormon endeavor is now available for purchase, and Jonathan Neville doesn’t like Skousen’s theory on how the translation was accomplished:
I’ve often expressed my respect and admiration for Brother Skousen’s work on the Book of Mormon. I rely on it all the time for understanding the details of the Original Manuscript and the Printer’s Manuscript. However, I think his Early Modern English theory is misguided and has unfortunate repercussions.
Based on reports from friends of mine who attended Skousen’s lecture this week at BYU, Skousen, when asked point-blank about his beliefs said that he believes God is directly responsible for the translation. (We’ll need to wait for the video of the presentation to be released to hear his exact quote.)

What bothers Neville is the following passage from page 6 of Skousen’s book, which addresses the quotations from the King James Bible that are found in the Book of Mormon:
All of this quoting from the King James Bible [in the Book of Mormon] is problematic, but only if we assume that the Book of Mormon translation literally represents what was on the plates. Yet the evidence in The Nature of the Original Language (parts 3 and 4) argues that the Book of Mormon translation is tied to Early Modern English, and even the themes of the Book of Mormon are connected to the Protestant Reformation, dating from the same time period. What this means is that the Book of Mormon is a creative and cultural translation of what was on the plates, not a literal one. Based on the linguistic evidence, the translation must have involved serious intervention from the English-language translator, who was not Joseph Smith. Nonetheless, the text was revealed to Joseph Smith by means of his translation instrument, and he read it off word for word to his scribe. To our modern-day, skeptical minds, this is indeed “a marvelous work and a wonder.”
Neville claims:
As near as I can tell, all the M2C intellectuals agree with Brother Skousen’s views of the translation, at least in part. It fits the M2C* narrative that Joseph was an ignorant speculator who misled the Church with the New York Cumorah, his claim that he translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim, etc.
Sigh. “M2C” has evolved from Neville’s term for Latter-day Saints who believe the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica to Neville’s term for Latter-day Saints who believe anything he disagrees with.

In any case, his accusation that “all the M2C intellectuals agree with Brother Skousen’s views of the translation” is yet another overstatement on Neville’s part. There is, in fact, rigorous debate among legitimate Latter-day Saint scholars (of which Neville is not one) about Joseph’s translation method. For example, Brant Gardner, a prominent scholar and author whom Neville mentions in his blog post and whom he certainly considers a leading “M2C intellectual,” disagrees with Skousen on numerous points. (Gardner has written an entire book that sets forth his views on the translation.)

Neville further claims that “It is standard M2C doctrine that Joseph did not provide a literal translation of what was on the plates,” which is why (according to him) “M2Cers” teach that towers in the Book of Mormon were made of stone, the destructions at Christ’s death involved volcanos, etc., even though these things aren’t explicitly mentioned in the Book of Mormon. This is more than a little hypocritical of Neville, for he and other Heartlanders have made interpretive claims that are not directly stated in the text that are far more egregious than anything claimed by “M2C intellectuals.”

In any event, what Neville seemingly fails to comprehend is that there is no such thing as a literal translation of a text—any text. Every translation is a “creative and cultural translation” (Skousen’s phrase), to a greater or lesser extent. There’s no way to translate any text without injecting meaning into it that the original speaker or writer did not intend. A “literal translation” is not only impossible, it would be gibberish to the intended audience.

The biggest problem with Neville’s blog post about Skousen is that he falls back on his usual stock-in-trade: Claim that Skousen’s work is good and that he’s a faithful member of the Church, etc., but dismiss his conclusions because they rub him and his fundamentalist views the wrong way. “All the M2C intellectuals agree with Brother Skousen,” he asserts; therefore Neville’s Heartlander audience can safely disregard what he has to say.

But here’s the thing: Skousen deserves to be taken seriously.
Royal Skousen

Royal Skousen’s curriculum vitae is 50 pages long. He received his B.A. from Brigham Young University in 1969, with a major in English and minor in mathematics. Within less than three years, he received both his M.A. (1971) and Ph.D. (1972) in linguistics from the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign. After being employed for seven years as a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas, in 1979 he became an an assistant professor of English and linguistics at BYU; he has been a full professor there since 1986. He has been a visiting professor or research fellow in linguistics at the University of California at San Diego, the University of Tampere, Finland, and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in The Netherlands, where he did work on analogical modeling and quantum computing. He’s consulted for numerous corporations and organizations, including WordPerfect Corporation (he developed the first spell checker for version 4.0 of their word processing software in 1984) and the Scripture Committee of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1989–1999). He is fluent in Finnish and has reading knowledge of German, French, Koine Greek, Latin, Old English, Swedish, and Hebrew. He has been the author or editor of nineteen books (with three forthcoming) and seventy-seven published scholarly articles.

Since May 1988, Skousen has been the editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project—now a nearly thirty-two-year endeavor. By my count, since 2001 he has produced, through that project, 10,462 printed pages on the text of the Book of Mormon, including The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, published by Yale University Press, and the two-volume photographic reprint of the printer’s manuscript, published the Church Historian’s Press.

Needless to say, Dr. Skousen is one of the most informed and accomplished scholars currently living and working. He knows more, from a scholarly standpoint, about the language of the Book of Mormon than any human being who has ever lived.

Now, Professor Skousen’s credentials and achievements do not automatically guarantee that his hypotheses on the origins of the Book of Mormon text are correct. He could be the world’s most educated and experienced scholar and still come to incorrect conclusions. But the length and breadth of his scholarly work on the text of the Book of Mormon simply require one to take him seriously, engage his arguments in good faith, and—if one disagrees with his conclusions—come up with alternative hypotheses that fit the mountain of evidence that Skousen has assembled.

Has Jonathan Neville done any of that? No. Instead, he’s simply dismissed Skousen’s arguments by falsely implying that Skousen is just another intellectual who rejects Joseph Smith’s prophetic gifts and Oliver Cowdery’s witness. Neville has responded to Skousen’s mountain of evidence by erecting a “Bandini Mountain” of assertion.

—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. Dear Peter,

    I'm flummoxed. I have been reading Jonathan Neville's blogs for over a year. I am neither a Heartlander nor a Mesoamerican aficionado - merely a humble follower of living prophets and the God they represent, but I have had some fascination with Brother Neville's take on what's important and what is not - so I have read every word he has written on his many, many, many blogs for the last 13 months.

    Here's the catch. I have never commented on his blogs...until last week when I replied to a comment from one of his readers. My response was a bit long (that's an understatement) and quite direct (that's a total understatement) - in which I held up the reader/commenter by his heels and shook violently. He replied with all humility and meekness and we had further joyous rejoinder, hugs and kisses, and all ended well.

    Except...JN remained silent.

    Since then I have commented on a number of his blog posts and they all stand there as a witness of "I told you so." But today I got the shock of my life. I commented on a particularly virulent blogpost of his on "Moroni's America" blog from January 23rd ostensibly about the Church's Come Follow Me manual but HE CENSORED MY POST AND REFUSED TO POST IT! I couldn't believe it, after his incessant whining about being censored by M2C. But there you have it.

    I managed to cut and past my entire censored post as comments on his Book of Mormon Central America blog and his Come Follow Me 2020 blog (where comments are not moderated) but who knows what mystical power administrators and moderators have these days.

    Anyway, and I feel like I am talking to Dear Abby here: Peter, what should I do about my predicament. I really want to share my view on Brother Neville's writings with his other readers, who I'm sure are absolutely waiting with bated breath for my next installment, but the cord has been pulled and I'm shut out.

    What would you advise?

    I turn to you because he seems to look up to you and admire your views - much as I hope he will learn to admire mine. I've assured him in the posts that survived the cutting room floor that I am definitely not Dan Peterson nor one of his lackeys - but to no avail. HELP!

    Yours in faith,

    1. FDH,

      You're not the first person to have their comments censored by Brother Neville. While it is his right to do so—heʼs not required to give anyone a podium on his blogs—it is, as you note, a bit hypocritical to complain about censorship while simultaneously practicing it.

      His regular censorship of comments was, in fact, one of the things that motivated me to start this blog. I suppose I would suggest you find a public space where you can post your concerns about his beliefs and the way that he goes about spreading them. Whether that be a blog, some other form of social media, in print, or as a podcast would be up to you and your talents.

      Best wishes to you!


    2. Peter,

      You are a man of miracles. Only yesterday did I publicly plead for your help in understanding why Brother Neville would censor my "somewhat" critical comment of his recent blogpost - and what to my wondering eyes did appear today on his blog? My post.

      I just knew in my heart Brother Neville closely follows your humble writings and might see my angst! And voila - my post appears on his blog and my weltsmertz is gone.

      Count me as a believer - and if you ever decide to run for higher office (in say...Never Never Land) you can count on me to be your ardent supporter.


    3. I'm glad he posted it. Iʼm more inclined to credit it to coincidence than malice on his part. Either way, though, Iʼm pleased you got through.



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