Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Neville’s Book of Mormon geography makes no sense, part 1

For some time I’ve wanted to critique Jonathan Neville’s proposed geography of the Book of Mormon. This is the first in what I expect will be a series that will demonstrate his proposed geography is fundamentally at odds with the descriptions given in the text of the book itself.

The problem with Neville’s geographic theory, of course, is that he’s put the cart before the horse: He presumes that the Book of Mormon took place in the “heartland” of the United States, based on his (undemonstrated) belief that the statements of prophets and apostles about the location of Cumorah were revealed by God and based on a strained interpretation of D&C 125:3 that claims it reveals the location of the Book of Mormon city of Zarahemla. These two references are what Neville calls “two pins on the map” in his books, Moroni’s America and Moroni’s America – Maps Edition:
Map 1 from Moroni's America - Maps Edition (Two Pins in a Map)
Because of these two incorrect starting points, Neville has to twist himself into knots to force the geography described in the Book of Mormon to align with his “pins.”

One particular failure of his geography came to me suddenly today while I was reading Helaman 1:14–34. This passage describes the Lamanite invasion of Nephite lands that took place ten years after the end of the end of the great war with the Lamanites (Alma 62:39). Under the command of the Mulekite dissenter Coriantumr, the Lamanite army “came down” (Helaman 1:15) from the land of Nephi into the land of Zarahemla. The Nephites, torn apart by “so much contention and so much difficulty in the government,” were unprepared for the Lamanites’ attack, and Coriantumr easily took the Nephite capital city of Zarahemla (Helaman 1:18–20).

Overconfident because of his easy victory over the Nephite capital, Coriantumr
did not tarry in the land of Zarahemla, but he did march forth with a large army, even towards the city of Bountiful; for it was his determination to go forth and cut his way through with the sword, that he might obtain the north parts of the land. And, supposing that their greatest strength was in the center of the land, therefore he did march forth, giving them no time to assemble themselves together save it were in small bodies; and in this manner they did fall upon them and cut them down to the earth. (Helaman 1:23–24)
Four times the text of Helaman 1 explains that Coriantumr and his Lamanite army marched through “the center of the land” from their homelands in the land of Nephi, then to Zarahemla, then to Bountiful (1:24, 25, 26, 27). Coriantumr’s objective was to “obtain the north parts of the land” (1:23), which is a reference to the former Jaredite lands that the Nephites called Desolation.

Mormon had previously described the Nephites’ precarious position and their desperate need to keep the Lamanites from taking the lands in the north:
Now, the more idle part of the Lamanites lived in the wilderness, and dwelt in tents; and they were spread through the wilderness on the west, in the land of Nephi; yea, and also on the west of the land of Zarahemla, in the borders by the seashore, and on the west in the land of Nephi, in the place of their fathers’ first inheritance, and thus bordering along by the seashore. And also there were many Lamanites on the east by the seashore, whither the Nephites had driven them. And thus the Nephites were nearly surrounded by the Lamanites.

Nevertheless the Nephites had taken possession of all the northern parts of the land bordering on the wilderness, at the head of the river Sidon, from the east to the west, round about on the wilderness side; on the north, even until they came to the land which they called Bountiful. And it bordered upon the land which they called Desolation, it being so far northward that it came into the land which had been peopled and been destroyed, of whose bones we have spoken, which was discovered by the people of Zarahemla, it being the place of their first landing. (Alma 22:28–30)
At the time of Alma 22, the Lamanites occupied the land of Nephi, south of the land of Zarahemla (Alma 16:6; 50:7), and many Lamanites also lived “on the west of the land of Zarahemla, in the borders by the seashore” (Alma 22:28) and “on the east by the seashore.” “And thus,” Mormon explained, “the Nephites were nearly surrounded by the Lamanites” (Alma 22:29). The Nephites occupied the center of the land of Zarahemla and held the strategic land of Bountiful, which was at the head of a “narrow pass” (Alma 52:9) or “narrow neck” (Alma 63:5) that led to the land northward. If the Lamanites had obtained the narrow pass, they would have had the Nephites surrounded, and would “have [had] power to harass them on every side” (Alma 52:9).

Prior to the great Lamanite war, Nephite captain Moroni drove the Lamanites out of the the wilderness areas on the west and the east of Zarahemla (Alma 50:7–12), giving the Nephites total control of the land of Zarahemla, from the sea west to the sea east. Ten years after the war, Nephite captain Moronihah “had supposed that the Lamanites durst not come into the center of the land, but that they would attack the cities round about in the borders as they had hitherto done” in the great Lamanite war (see Alma 51:22–28), “therefore Moronihah had caused that their strong armies should maintain those parts round about by the borders” (Helaman 1:26). In other words, Moronihah’s armies were in the west and east wilderness areas, along the west and east seashores. Because of this, captain Lehi was able to bring his army out of the wilderness and meet Coriantumr’s army in the center of the land before the Lamanites reached Bountiful, while Moronihah’s army also came out of the wilderness behind Coriantumr, surrounding the Lamanite army and defeating them (Helaman 1:28–31). Moronihah “took possession of the city of Zarahemla again, and caused that the Lamanites who had been taken prisoners should depart out of the land in peace” (Helaman 1:33).

Mormon’s descriptions of Nephite lands in the passages I’ve cited are clear and unambiguous. They were arranged something like this:
General arrangement of Nephite lands, created by Peter Pan for the Neville-Neville Land blog
Jonathan Neville will certainly object that my general map looks a lot like all the other “fantasy maps” of the Book of Mormon that he rejects. But this arrangement is the only way to logically arrange Nephite lands so that they meet all the requirements of the passages cited above. Any proposed Book of Mormon map must depict Nephite lands in such a way that that they meet four criteria:

  1. There were wilderness areas on the west and the east of the land of Zarahemla, the Nephite core.
  2. Beyond the west and east wilderness areas were seashores.
  3. The land of Bountiful was north of the land of Zarahemla.
  4. The land of Bountiful was a defensive point before the “narrow pass” or “narrow neck” that led to the land northward (Desolation).

That’s the only way that Mormon could describe the Nephites as being “nearly surrounded by the Lamanites” (Alma 22:29), as well as “nearly surrounded by water” (Alma 22:32). There was no other avenue of escape for the Nephites—they had to hold the land of Bountiful, or else the Lamanites would have had them completely hemmed in with no means of escape.

Now let’s look at Jonathan Neville’s map of Coriantumr’s invasion in Helaman 1:
Map 74 from Moroni's America - Maps Edition (Coriantumr and Moronihah)
Neville’s map—which mistakenly identifies itself as describing the action in Helaman 2fails all four criteria.

There is no way, in Neville’s map, for the Nephites to be “nearly surrounded by the Lamanites,” as Mormon described them. Even if one grants all the lands south of the Missouri and Ohio Rivers were Lamanite territory, that would only box in the Nephites on two sides. The Nephites would have had numerous ways to escape invading Lamanite armies, including through modern-day Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, with another escape route through Michigan.

In Neville’s map, Bountiful is of no strategic value in keeping the Lamanites from getting to the north parts of the land (or Desolation). The Lamanites could easily have done an end-run around Nephite lands through modern Pennsylvania, or crossed directly through Nephite lands in modern Indiana and Ohio and made their way north through Michigan, or traveled upriver along the Missouri to get north of the Nephites in Zarahemla, Iowa.

Neville tries to fix one of those three problems in his next map, number 75, in which he imagines that there was one continuous wood-and-earth fortification—a “Great Wall of Nephi,” if you will—between Lake Michigan (the “sea west”) and Lake Ontario (the “sea east”). This fantastic feat of construction—for which there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever—would have been over 600 miles long. (And Neville complains that BYU’s Virtual Book of Mormon is a “fantasy map”!)
Map 75 (detail) from Moroni's America - Maps Edition (Nephites Fortify Bountiful)

Finally, there is the problem of the west wilderness and the east wilderness on either side of the land of Zarahemla, with each each wilderness bordering a seashore. There’s simply no way that can work in Neville’s geography. In order to fit his geographical square peg into the round hole of the American Midwest, Neville has to distort the meanings of basic words multiple times. Sometimes he expects us to believe that these wilderness areas were rivers (see map 9), even though the Book of Mormon tells us that people “lived in the wilderness” (Alma 22:28). Other times he expects us to believe that rivers were seas (see map 13, where he claims the lower Mississippi River was the sea west), except when he needs them to be rivers (see map 12, where he claims the Mississippi River is the river Sidon). And as for Nephite and Lamanite lands being “nearly surrounded by water” (Alma 22:32), he expects us to believe that means the Missouri and Ohio Rivers (see map 14), which were also wildernesses (per map 9).

Neville’s fantastic Book of Mormon geography is, in short, a mess. It makes no sense, doesn’t align with the book’s own descriptions of the lands, and requires us to define words in whatever way is convenient to Neville in an given passage.

—Peter Pan


  1. Amen! I've always had problems with the Heartland map for these same reasons. It doesn't seem logical to say the Lamanites were "hemmed in" on the south (Alma 22:34) when they literally have an entire continent to move around and surround the Nephites. And I've always had trouble with all west sea(s) of Neville's fantasy map being east of Zarahemla. A land like Mesoamerica fits Book of Mormon geography much better than a forced context Neville tries forcing upon the text.

    1. Yes; Heartlanders tend to make everything much more complicated than it needs to be. If a simpler explanation will do, why go to the trouble of going through all of these leaps of logic to make the explanation more complicated?

    2. Reminds me of Occam's Razor. Generally I've found that with anything, whether it be Book of Mormon Geography, translation of said book, whatever it may be, the simplest answer is usually right. I've found that God doesn't work in conspiracy theories or confusion, and that is exactly what the Heartland movement tries using to justify their insane obsession with fraudulent artifacts and geography.

  2. Jonathan Neville and Wayne May are nice and sincere members of the Church, as are most of those who read this blog. We are "brethren" in the gospel of Christ. I have had significant conversations with Jonathan and Wayne and always found them patient and kind. They know I disagree with their Traditional North America Heartland Model (I call it the TNAHM), even though there are many things we do readily agree on, like the location of the hill Cumorah and Zarahemla the translation of the Book of Mormon via only the Urim and Thummim. It's always easy to make snap judgements but wisdom usually dictates a careful and thoughtful approach yields the best result.

    As for Book of Mormon geography I recommend to you the Zarhemla Centric Heartland Model (ZCHM) as the most thorough and complete of any model available. See https://theholyscriptures.info/BookOfMormonCovenantLands

    The principle of "Occams Razor" is "entities should not be multiplied without necessity". In other words, all things being equal the simpler solution is usually the best. So one must be careful not to misapply the principle. The earth is not flat just because that is the simpler solution.

    1. While I disagree with Book of Mormon geographies that place Zarahemla in modern Iowa—theyʼre based on a wholly new and unwarranted interpretation of D&C 125—I have no problem with anyone who wants to place the Book of Mormon anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

      What I do have a problem with is individuals like Jonathan Neville who insist that those who donʼt believe as he does “reject the teachings of the prophets,” when (as Iʼve repeatedly demonstrated) his own beliefs contradict the teachings of modern, living prophets and apostles.

      In other words, itʼs not Nevilleʼs beliefs; itʼs his claim to exclusive truths that are not backed up by living prophets.

  3. It is true the TNAHM relies on DC 125 and that alone is weak. However, the ZCHM does not rely on DC 125 and yet it comes to the same conclusion regarding the location of Zarahemla.

    Jonathan can be stubborn, determined and dogmatic and I understand how that can irritate people, especially when he gets outside the area of his expertise. He is not a linguist for example and he is not "technical" in the sense of being able to deal with the data points of Book of Mormon geography. He is however a good writer and an excellent historical researcher and I respect his work when he sticks to the areas of his expertise.

    I think each claim about the teachings of the prophets should be considered individually on it's own merits. Some of Jonathan's claims clearly have merit, like the inappropriate and frequent censorship of the Wentworth letter in publications. He often claims he just wants the traditional historical perspectives represented and not only just the "revisionist" histories.

    I think I agree with him on that point at least.

    1. Jay,

      I disagree with you about the quality of Jonathan Neville’s historical research. In the two years that this blog has existed, I’ve documented many, many instances where he’s misrepresented the historical record, ignored or dismissed historical data that doesn’t jibe with his predetermined beliefs, and overstated the reliability of late or thirdhand accounts. He repeatedly makes the mistake common to many amateur historians by coming to his conclusions first, then focusing on, distorting, or ignoring evidence so that it supports his conclusions.

      Calling a historical narrative “revisionist” is simply a pejorative way of dismissing what may be—and in this case is—newer, better research that sheds light on people, events, and documents. Just because a perspective is “traditional” does not make it equal to or better than newer perspectives. In the case of Mormon history, there were numerous errors made by earlier historians, including compiling the history of the Church in Joseph Smith’s first-person voice and dismissing evidence that should have been considered (as Joseph Fielding Smith did with eyewitness accounts of Joseph Smith using a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon).

      We need better, more reliable research into the locations of Book of Mormon events. The Heartland theory has failed to provide that at every turn since it was conceived 15 years ago.

    2. Good points. When I say good historical researcher, I would emphasize the word "researcher" because he does come up with new information and fresh perspectives, although I agree they are frequently driven from predetermined conclusions. That doesn't make him bad--or unique. The important part is that, after many many online discussions with Jonathan Neville, I believe his intent is an honest one.

      When I say "revisionist" I am referring to the trend in academia to needlessly and sometimes dishonestly denigrate the hero's of the past like the founding fathers and others. This strokes the ego of the author ("I am just as good or better than he/she was") and controversy sells books, also for the fame and financial benefit of the author. This negative approach has also, I believe, spilled into Church history as well, and is a very evil thing. I don't see Jonathan Neville as being a part of that, and so he has my respect in that regard.

      As I said, I am NOT a proponent of the Heartland Model of Wayne May and Jonathan Neville. However if you are sincere about more reliable research into the locations of Book of Mormon events, it is right in front of you. You need only look and study the ZCHM at https://theholyscriptures.info/BookOfMormonCovenantLands

    3. Jay,

      Once again, I’ll have to disagree with you:

      Jonathan Neville has brought forth no “new information”—in fact, he’s done no original research at all; he’s simply used documents and sources that have been collected and published by others.

      “Fresh perspectives” are not, by themselves, good or useful or beneficial things. I could present a “fresh perspective” by claiming that wind is generated by birds flapping their wings, but that would simply ignore all that is known about earth science. “Fresh perspectives” are only useful if they synthesize existing evidence or deal with new evidence in a way that previous perspectives did not; Jonathan Neville’s theories, however, simply ignore or distort existing evidence.

      Neville may very well be honest. Many people throughout history have been sincere and also been sincerely wrong. Sincerity is not a virtue.

      Do you believe that the Church History Department (which produces the Joseph Smith Papers and reports to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles), Book of Mormon Central, Interpreter, BYU’s Department of Religious Education, or the Seminaries and Institutes “denigrate the hero's [sic] of the past”? (By that, I assume you mean the Prophet Joseph Smith.) If so, in what way have they done so? (Joseph himself published revelations in which he was reprimanded by the Lord, and he himself disclaimed any notion that he was infallible.)

    4. Sincerity is indeed a virtue and makes most everyone's list of important virtues. We need more of it. It was on Benjamin Franklin's list. See http://franklinsway.com/benjamin-franklins-13-virtues/

      As to your other comments I would prefer more to seek common ground rather than magnify differences.

    5. The Pharisees were sincere.
      The people in the mob at Carthage jail were sincere.
      Many of today’s anti-Mormons are sincere.

      They’re all wrong, and their sincerity counts for nothing.

      So, I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Franklin.

      I, also, would prefer to seek common ground with Jonathan Neville and other Heartlanders. The problem is that they struck the first blow when Rod Meldrum, beginning in 2006, began to falsely accuse BYU professors and FARMS employees of “discounting” and “disdaining” the Prophet Joseph Smith. Jonathan Neville has picked up that baton and run with it: He continually repeats the lie the people who don't believe the Book of Mormon hill Cumorah is in western New York believe that “the prophets are wrong” and are “repudiating the teachings of the prophets.” (In fact, he wrote yet another blog post today—Feb. 4, 2021—in which he used those exact phrases. Again.) As long as Neville and Meldrum and other Heartlanders continue to slander the motives and reputations of Church historians and other scholars, there will be a division between them.

  4. So... you have declared a kind of war? who are you Peter ?lastname?, and what is your background?

    Why do you think BYU professors and FARMS employees need defending? Do they even want you to "strike a blow" for them?

    These are not rhetorical questions. I am just trying to understand.

    1. I haven't declared a war; Meldrum and Neville have. And they've continued to prosecute it for 15 years, despite the attempts to by the Mesoamerican side to find common ground.

      Iʼm not defending Mesoamericanists as much as Iʼm warning unsuspecting members of the Church away from Nevilleʼs heretical, heterodox teachings. His doctrine will only lead Latter-day Saints to eventually declare that the Church and its leaders are “out of the way.” (Mark my words.)

      Me? Iʼm nobody.


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