Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Jonathan Neville, volcanologist

In his second blog post in what appears to be a series criticizing Mesoamericanist Book of Mormon scholar Kirk Magleby, Jonathan Neville commented on Magleby’s arguments concerning the meaning of the word Cumorah.

Of course, Neville being Neville, he couldn’t help but start off by taking an assertion-without-evidence swipe at the entire Mesoamerican viewpoint, which he claims is not just wrong but heretical:
[Magleby’s] article “Ramah/Cumorah” is a fascinating example of bias confirmation for those interested in the psychology of M2C. Our M2C friends have a variety of techniques to justify their repudiation of the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah. In this article, the 30 “textual criteria” are outcome-driven interpretations of the text, designed to explain the “2C” part of M2C.
Neville’s comment falls right in line with his primary thesis that the Mesoamerican view of the Book of Mormon (“M2C” in Neville-speak), is simply “confirmation bias” designed to “repudiate the teachings of the prophets”—even though prophets and apostles (including President Russell M. Nelson) have spoken of the Book of Mormon taking place in Mesoamerica and a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon has been included in copies of scripture published by the Church (like this 1962 edition) and in the Church’s official magazines (like this two part series in the Ensign). No, all of that is just a Church-wide conspiracy, according to Neville.

But back to the main point of this post, which is to call attention to one of the most astonishing hand-waving assertions Neville has ever committed to print. Magleby approvingly cited some theories of linguist David Richins regarding the meaning of the name Cumorah, about which Neville commented:
Richins then explains why he thinks the [Mesoamerican] pyramids represent volcanoes. He thinks the “original” Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 was a Central American volcano. That doesn’t make sense to me; I’ve visited lots of volcanoes and I wouldn’t describe any of them as a “hill.”
And there you have it, folks: Neville’s never seen a volcano that was small enough to be called a “hill,” therefore the hill Cumorah couldn’t have been a volcanic mound.

What’s most astounding about this is that Neville could—but didn’t—double-check his belief with a simple Google search. Had he done this, he may have come across this article on the syndicated news service Live Science. (I’ve added boldface to key portions.)
Cinder cone volcanoes (also called scoria cones) are the most common type of volcano, according to San Diego State University, and are the symmetrical cone-shaped volcanoes we typically think of. They may occur as single volcanoes or as secondary volcanoes known as “parasitic cones” on the sides of stratovolcanoes or shield volcanoes. Airborne fragments of lava, called tephra, are ejected from a single vent. The lava cools rapidly and fall as cinders that build up around the vent, forming a crater at the summit, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Cinder cone volcanoes are fairly small, generally only about 300 feet (91 meters) tall and not rising more than 1,200 feet (366 meters). They can build up over short periods of a few months or years.
Small cinder cone volcanos exist around the world. Latter-day Saints who live in southwestern Utah and northern Arizona are probably familiar with this type of prominence, as there are perhaps thousands of them in that area. Here are just two examples:
Sunset Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona
Sunset Crater (999 ft./304 m) cinder cone, near Flagstaff, Arizona

Sullivan's Knoll, Hurricane, Utah Sullivan’s Knoll (648 ft./198 m) cinder cone, Hurricane, Utah
Neville’s personal experience notwithstanding, there are many cinder cone volcanoes small enough to be called “hills.”

I’ve pulled that particular quote out of his longer blog post because it’s yet another example of Neville doing exactly what he criticizes his “M2C” opponents of doing, namely offering up bias confirmation instead of actual evidence. He’s never seen a volcano that could be described as a “hill”; therefore, no such thing exists and his opponents are wrong. When he thinks of the hill Cumorah, he envisions the drumlin in western New York, which isn’t a volcano; therefore, he rejects the suggestion that the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon may have been a volcano.

Neville’s personal biases are at least as strong as those who believe in a Mesoamerican Book of Mormon setting. Those who argue for Mesoamerica, however, just happen to have more behind their views than tradition, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories.

—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 title of this post alone caused me to chuckle.

    Regarding your final paragraph, another thing I have noticed that differentiates "Mesoamericanists" from "Heartlanders" is that not only do they have more evidence to back up their views, they are also more willing to consider evidence that doesn't support their views. They are happy to accept evidence for the Book of Mormon anywhere it is found, provided it is good evidence; and will only accept evidence that supports their views if it is good evidence, as well.

    "Heartlanders", on the other hand, refuse to accept any evidence that disagrees with their views or is outside of their preconceived geographical area, no matter how solid and scholarly. At the same time, they will accept any evidence that supports their views, no matter how flimsy and unprofessional.

    Finally, I would add that most volcanoes I have seen would definitely qualify as hills in scope (but I'm no volcanologist).

  2. Hill-size volcanoes I can think of off the top of my head, and that are visible from the road include: Pahvant Butte, west of Fillmore, UT (and associated cinder cones), Cove Fort cinder cone, Santa Clara Volcanoes in Snow Canyon State Park, Veyo Volcano (admire it while enjoying a famous Veyo pie), and in addition to the one pictured above, there are two other low cinder cones on the north side of Hurricane. I drove past most of these over the weekend. Then there is Parícutin, the volcano that excited so many scientists in the 40s when it belched out of a corn field in west-central Mexico.

    To be fair, there's no objective distinction that I'm aware of between what constitutes a mountain or a [mole]hill, it's rather subjective, but none of these has much prominence (relative height above the surrounding landscape), most of these have less than 1000 feet of it. So Pahvant Butte (1100') and Sullivan Knoll (~800') might be termed large hills, or small mountains, in terms of prominence. Parícutin comes in at less than 800' prominence. (See also Craters of the Moon NM, volcano fields north of Flagstaff AZ).

    One thing is at least partially correct though: many Mayan pyramids represent mountains (whether volcanic or otherwise), especially in the lowlands (where there are many hills). And there are plenty of volcanoes in the Maya region, since it comprises part of the Ring of Fire. Guatemala City enjoys a view of no less than four volcanic peaks, one of which (Fuego) is erupting right now. Santa María, outside Quetzaltenango is one of the most active and dangerous in the region, but none of these could be thought of as hills, since they top out at over 8,000->12,000 feet.

    And thus we see that volcanoes run the gamut from small hills to very tall mountains, some of which (Mauna Loa in Hawaii) are the largest mountains on Earth.


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