Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Jonathan Neville and the Hofmann saga

Jonathan Neville has published another hit piece on “M2C* scholars,” this time linking them to Church historians who accepted Mark Hofmann’s forgeries as authentic:
Church members and leaders who relied on the experts were misled by faithful, well-meaning experts who, for various reasons, developed a groupthink around the forged documents. Bias confirmation strengthened the groupthink to the point where it could be overcome only by outside experts and irrefutable evidence.
Or by bombs. But, I know—details, shmetails.

(If you’re not familiar with the events behind the Hofmann forgeries, I highly recommend Richard E. Turley Jr.’s excellent book, Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case.)

There are at least five glaring problems with Neville exhuming the corpses of Hofmann’s victims to attack his dreaded “M2C” foes:
Jonathan Neville misspelled Mark Hofmann's name 14 times in his May 14, 2020, blog post

1. Mark Hofmann’s last name is spelled with one f and two ns. Neville misspells it Hoffman in the title of his blog post and throughout the article—fourteen times, in all. He even misspells it when it was spelled correctly in the source he quoted verbatim. When you’re criticizing scholars for their supposed sloppy work, make sure that you at least look up the subject you’re writing about on Wikipedia to check that you’re spelling his name correctly, okay Brother Neville?

2. Neville complains that Church scholars accepted the Salamander Letter as authentic, even though Hofmann got the idea for it from the 1834 anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed. Yet Neville himself accepts the common anti-Mormon argument that Church leaders and Church members were “misled” by experts, a claim critics of the Church use to supposedly demonstrate that the leaders of the Church were not inspired enough to see through Hofmann’s lies.

In 1987, then-Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained:
In order to perform their personal ministries, Church leaders cannot be suspicious and questioning of each of the hundreds of people they meet each year. Ministers of the gospel function best in an atmosphere of trust and love. In that kind of atmosphere, they fail to detect a few deceivers, but that is the price they pay to increase their effectiveness in counseling, comforting, and blessing the hundreds of honest and sincere people they see. It is better for a Church leader to be occasionally disappointed than to be constantly suspicious.

The Church is not unique in preferring to deal with people on the basis of trust. This principle of trust rather than suspicion even applies to professional archives. During my recent visit to the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California, I was interested to learn that they have no formal procedures to authenticate the many documents they acquire each year. They say they consider it best to function in an atmosphere of trust and to assume the risk of the loss that may be imposed by the occasional deceiver.
Which brings me to my next point:

3. Hofmann fooled everyone, not just Church scholars. He was one of the greatest forgerers in modern history. Wikipedia explains:
In addition to documents from Mormon history, Hofmann also forged and sold signatures of many famous non-Mormons, including George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Boone, John Brown, Andrew Jackson, Mark Twain, Nathan Hale, John Hancock, Francis Scott Key, Abraham Lincoln, John Milton, Paul Revere, Myles Standish, and Button Gwinnett, whose signature was the rarest, and therefore the most valuable, of any signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Hofmann also forged a previously unknown poem in the hand of Emily Dickinson.

But his grandest scheme was to forge what was perhaps the most famous missing document in American colonial history, the Oath of a Freeman. The one-page Oath had been printed in 1639, the first document to be printed in Britain’s American colonies; but only about fifty copies had been made, and none of these were extant. A genuine example was probably worth over one million dollars in 1985, and Hofmann’s agents began to negotiate a sale to the Library of Congress
Church historians did their best at the time, but Hofmann fooled not just them but some of the world’s greatest handwriting experts. Criticizing Church scholars for accepting Hofmann’s forgeries and doing their best to give them context within Church history is a low blow, even by Neville’s standards.

4. Despite the tragic failures of the Hofmann affair, members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve still trust historians and scholars to help them and to inform Church members. Neville admits this in his blog post, but he goes on claim that the experts who were guilty of “groupthink” at the time are still under “the influence of the Hoffman forgeries,” which continue “through the present in the way Church historians are interpreting Church history.” If that is truly the case, then why do the Church’s highest leaders still trust the experts and rely on them? (Does Neville actually think about the implications of any of the arguments he makes? The long trail of evidence collected on this blog indicates no, he doesn’t.)

President M. Russell Ballard recently told Church educators:
When something has the potential to threaten our spiritual life, our most precious family relationships, and our membership in the kingdom, we should find thoughtful and faithful Church leaders to help us. And, if necessary, we should ask those with appropriate academic training, experience, and expertise for help.

This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to my own questions that I cannot answer myself. I seek help from my Brethren in the Quorum of the Twelve and from others with expertise in fields of Church history and doctrine.
President Ballard turns to the very experts that Neville claims have been compromised by “groupthink.” What does Neville know that President Ballard doesn’t?

5. Finally—and ironically—somewhat like the experts who were fooled by Mark Hofmann, Heartlanders accept forged artifacts as authentic.

The Annotated Edition of the Book of Mormon, a Heartlander publication of the Book of Mormon for which Neville served as a contributor, accepts as genuine numerous items that mainstream scholars have clearly demonstrated to be forgeries, including the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone, the Bat Creek Stone, the Newark Holy Stones, and the Tucson Lead Artifacts. (See Stephen Smoot’s review of the AEBOM for more about this.) Heartlanders are also borderline obsessive about the fraudulent Michigan Relics, which James E. Talmage declared over one hundred years ago to be fraudulent.

So it’s deeply ironic that Neville is critical of “faithful, well-meaning experts who, for various reasons, developed a groupthink around…forged documents” and succumbed to “bias confirmation,” when the rank amateurs who pose as experts within the Heartland movement are literally doing exactly that.

These are yet more examples of Jonathan Neville’s near-total lack of self-awareness. Almost every criticism he levels at his “M2C” opponents applies as much, if not more, to him and his Heartlander colleagues. Just change a few of the words around, and anything he writes can be turned against him and his beliefs.

—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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