Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Jonathan Neville accuses Church leaders of apostasy

Jonathan Neville has continued his long slide into apostasy by claiming that today’s Church leaders are no longer teaching important truths in General Conference.

This is the same pattern the Latter-day Saints have seen time and time again since 1830: Someone accuses the prophet and other general authorities of being “out of the way,” while they themselves claim to know the truth. Sooner or later, they declare the Church to be in apostasy and break off to form their own church. There have been hundreds of such offshoots; one recent example is the cult of Denver Snuffer. Heartlanders like Jonathan Neville aren’t far behind them.

On May 28, 2020, Neville published a post entitled “Revisionist history and new narratives” on his blog with the too-clever-by-half name Book of Mormon Central America. He began with an outright falsehood:
Many members of the Church are wondering…about the U-turn involving the translation of the Book of Mormon.

From the beginning of the Restoration until 2007, Church leaders and members embraced the narrative that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery repeatedly set forth; i.e., that Joseph Smith translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.

Now, we’re told that Joseph didn’t really use the plates or the Urim and Thummim. Instead, he just read words that appeared on a seer stone that he found in a well long before he got the plates. He would put the seer stone into a hat and read the words out loud to his scribe.
As this blog has pointed out repeatedly, the knowledge that Joseph Smith used a seer stone (along with the Nephite intepreters, also called “Urim and Thummim”) to translate the Book of Mormon was well-known to Latter-day Saints from the early days, having been declared by faithful witnesses to the translation, affirmed by Church leaders, and published in Church newspapers, Church magazines, and Church histories.

Where Neville and other Heartlanders go wrong is in elevating Elder Joseph Fielding Smith’s personal beliefs about the translation of the Book of Mormon to the level of absolute truth. While admitting that “information points to the fact that [Joseph Smith] did have in his possession such a [seer] stone,” Elder Smith asserted that “there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a stone was made in that translation.” He went on to assert that “the information is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose.” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:225–326.)

With all due respect to Joseph Fielding Smith—a great man, an apostle, and (later) Church president—he was simply wrong to reject the overwhelming number of eyewitness testimonies of Joseph using a seer stone to translate and receive revelations, many of which had been published by the Church prior to Elder Smith’s (private, non-Church) publication of Doctrines of Salvation in the 1950s. And Heartlanders are wrong to assert, as Neville does, that “from the beginning of the Restoration until 2007” no Latter-day Saint believed or taught that Joseph used a seer stone.

The bigger problem with Neville’s recent post, however, is this statement:
In General Conference from 1971–2007, speakers discussed the Urim and Thummim 14 times, including by Elders Packer, Perry, Hales, Romney, Petersen, and Hinckley.

After 2007, though, there has been a change. In General Conference from 2008–2019, the Urim and Thummim has been mentioned only twice, neither time reaffirming that Joseph translated the Book of Mormon by means of the Urim and Thummim.
As the robot from the 1960s television series Lost in Space used to exclaim while flailing his arms about, “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!
Robot from Lost in Space
Neville is not-too-subtly implying here that Church leaders—including those whom we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators—have veered away from teaching historical and doctrinal truths since 2008. Neville is unable or unwilling to conceive of the fact that it is he who is wrong and that Church leaders are acting on better information.

What comes next, however, is perhaps even more disturbing:
I was curious what changed in 2007. The book Rough Stone Rolling, which promoted SITH [the stone-in-the-hat theory], was published in 2005. That book cites the evidence for SITH but not for the use of the plates with the Urim and Thummim, such as Lucy Mack Smith’s account.

In January 2007, Richard Bushman was interviewed by John Dehlin of Mormon Stories. This excerpt from a transcript of that interview claims that it was a mistake to teach that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim. John said someday the Ensign would have to set the record straight by showing the stone in the hat.

With the January 2020 issue of the Ensign, that has come to fruition.
Neville then goes on to include a lengthy transcript from part three of John Dehlin’s 2007 interview with historian Richard Bushman.

In this portion of his blog post, Neville implies that prophets, seers, and revelators have veered away from teaching doctrinal and historical truths because of Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith—the same Richard Bushman who was interviewed by the apostate, ex-Mormon John Dehlin. (Neville fails to inform us that, although Dehlin’s podcast was somewhat edgy in 2007, Dehlin himself was still an active member of the Church at that time; he wasn’t excommunicated for apostasy until 2015.)

This is, of course, all part of Neville’s belief that there is a massive conspiracy by Church historians and other Church employees to suppress the truth about Book of Mormon geography, the translation of the Book of Mormon, and other doctrines.

Neville scoffs at the claim that he is on a direct course for apostasy. But how can anyone deny, with a straight face, that that is exactly what we’ve seen in his most recent post?

—Peter Pan


  1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't the term "Urim and Thummim" originally used to refer to both the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone collectively? It was thus not inaccurate to say (from "the beginning of the Restoration until 2007") that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim, because that term referred to both tools. It was adopted as a term because of its use in the Old Testament, but the interpreters weren't originally called "Urim and Thummim"; and over time, the term became used to refer exclusively to the Nephite interpreters, with the seer stone being somewhat forgotten, at least among lay members and non-historians (at least from what I understand).

    If this is the case, it makes sense that the Church would be trying to accurately represent the tools that Joseph Smith used in the translation. Using the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the tool(s) Joseph Smith used to translate does not convey the understanding, among modern members of the Church, that Joseph used both the interpreters and the seer stone, as it may have once done when the term was first introduced. Thus, I can understand why speakers in General Conference have not used the term more recently, reflecting the greater historical understanding we have now.

    (I think my information comes from something I read in Mackay and Dirkmaat's "From Darkness Unto Light", but I don't have the book in front of me at the moment, so I could be wrong).

  2. Hmm… I must have been in some kind of quantum time anomaly. I distinctly remember having a very fun, lively and inspiring discussion of Joseph’s use of his seer stones with a group of missionaries and church leaders when I was a missionary. The problem is, I thought I was a missionary in the 1970s.

    Yet now I am told that I couldn’t have had that conversation until after 2007. Somehow, before my mission conversation, but after my mission, I managed to have a family, but was still waiting to go on my mission, as a young man, but was already past the half century mark …. Wait! What?!?


  3. I saw the seer stone in the visitors center on Temple Square as a new convert in 1973. I thought it was odd but interesting. The visitors center is far different now than it was then.


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