Refuting the errors of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland hoax

Sunday, July 26, 2020

A response to Opie regarding Wayne May

My recent blog post about Wayne May’s charming video prompted a comment from Opie. I thought his comment raised enough points that it would be best if I responded in a separate post.

Here’s a link to his original comment, which I’ll also reprint here:
I work closely with the LDS members you are judging and you are bearing false witness.

I followed the Mesoamerican Book of Mormon archaeology for 45 years and grew tired of the lack of results that confirmed the Book of Mormon geography. The Heartland model does not demand that we throw Joseph Smith and many others church leaders under the bus.

I do not know of anyone who has lost their testimony because of the Heartland Model, but one of the very prominent believers in Mesoamerica left the church and called the Book of Mormon a fraud (see attached article). Notice in the article in table 1 that the timeline for the Mayan culture does not fit at all within the Book of Mormon timeline. The picture of Christ walking down the stairs of a pagan Mayan temple is impossible since the Mayan buildings were not built until ~800 years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you do not believe in the revelation recorded in D&C 125:3, please tells us why the Lord gave Joseph Smith this revelation? Also, please enlighten us as to what you know about Mesoamerican Book of Mormon archaeological findings that Brother Thomas Stuart Ferguson did not know that would have kept him from leaving the church. There is nothing phony here except the millions of dollars Mesoamerican Book of Mormon hoaxers has taken from the church and its members. The events recorded in the Book of Mormon took place in the eastern US and not in Southern Mexico or Guatemala. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/01/how-mormon-lawyer-transformed-archaeology-mexico-and-ended-losing-his-faith
I’m grateful that Opie felt comfortable leaving a comment criticizing my post, and I’m happy to publish it and so other readers can read and engage with it.

In response to the points he raised:

“I work closely with the LDS members you are judging and you are bearing false witness.‘

I am not “judging” anyone, at least not in the soteriological sense. Rather, I’m evaluating their words and their claims.

Wayne May published a video on YouTube that accuses The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of hypocrisy and teaching falsehoods. He is criticizing the Church; doing so makes him a critic of the Church. Anyone who openly criticizes the Church in such a blatant way is, at the very least, flirting with apostasy.

If you’re a faithful, believing member of the Church, Opie, then I don’t understand why you believe May’s comments attacking the Church are justifiable.

“I followed the Mesoamerican Book of Mormon archaeology for 45 years and grew tired of the lack of results that confirmed the Book of Mormon geography.”

Clearly you and I have a different perspective on the results of Book of Mormon research in Mesoamerica. The case for a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon has never been stronger, thanks to the diligent efforts of credible, trained scholars like John L. Sorenson, Brant A. Gardner, Mark Alan Wright, and others.

“The Heartland model does not demand that we throw Joseph Smith and many others church leaders under the bus.”

Well, it does demand that you throw modern prophets and apostles under the bus.

Believing the Heartland model also requires one to elevate every statement made by Joseph Smith about Book of Mormon geography to the level of revelation—unless, of course, what he said or wrote contradicts the Heartland theory, in which case one must then throw him under the bus by claiming that he didn’t know what was being published in his name.

“I do not know of anyone who has lost their testimony because of the Heartland Model…”

Your anecdotal evidence tells us nothing. Certainly there must be individuals who once believed the Heartland theory who are now non-believing, non-practicing, or former members of the Church.

Of greater concern to me, though, is the current trajectory the Heartland movement. Its leaders have been making statements critical of the Church for years; more recently, these comments have even been critical of living prophets and apostles. (For just one example, see here.) If they continue on their current path, they will inevitably come to believe that the the Church is “out of the way” and form their own fundamentalist splinter group.

Mark my words. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.

“…but one of the very prominent believers in Mesoamerica left the church and called the Book of Mormon a fraud (see attached article [from ScienceMag.org]).”

“Also, please enlighten us as to what you know about Mesoamerican Book of Mormon archaeological findings that Brother Thomas Stuart Ferguson did not know that would have kept him from leaving the church.

It’s curious, Opie, that you would join with critics of the Church in singling out Thomas Ferguson as evidence of the failure of the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography. For decades, anti-Mormons and ex-Mormons have claimed that Ferguson’s inability to find evidence of his predetermined beliefs shows how weak the claims for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon are.

The article you linked from ScienceMag.org shares all the weaknesses of those criticisms of the Church—it emphasizes Ferguson’s efforts and ignores all the research that’s been done since his time. (It likewise attacks the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, something I hope you, Opie, would disagree with.)

Ferguson wasn’t an archaeologist or an anthropologist; he was a lawyer who started a private foundation to advance his amateur archaeological interests. He came to his conclusions, then failed to find evidence to support them—backwards from how real science is done.

Numerous Latter-day Saint scholars have tried to correct the record with regard to Ferguson’s activities, but critics of the Church (including Heartlanders) have simply been ignorant of what’s been written or have refused to read what’s available. Here are a few suggested articles, Opie, that will set you straight about Ferguson:


“Notice in the [ScienceMag.org] article in table 1 that the timeline for the Mayan culture does not fit at all within the Book of Mormon timeline.”

It doesn’t? Are we looking at the same article?
Mesoamerican timeline from ScienceMag.org
According to the article’s timeline, the Book of Mormon’s timeline fits very neatly with the Formative period of the Preclassic Maya. Now, I’m not claiming that the Nephites were the Preclassic Maya, but the timelines and general historical arc of the Preclassic Period seem to track very closely with the narrative of the Book of Mormon.

“The picture of Christ walking down the stairs of a pagan Mayan temple is impossible since the Mayan buildings were not built until ~800 years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ.‘

I freely and cheerfully admit that some Latter-day Saint artwork produced for the Church has been ahistorical. Artists frequently take license in their works in ways which strict historians and other scholars would take issue with. Your criticism of Church artwork, however, isn’t a valid criticism of a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon.

“If you do not believe in the revelation recorded in D&C 125:3, please tells us why the Lord gave Joseph Smith this revelation?”

I’ll answer your question with a question: If D&C 125:3 is to be interpreted as a revelation about the ancient location of the Book of Mormon city of Zarahemla, why has no other Latter-day Saint interpreted it that way before Rodney Meldrum and the Heartlanders appeared on the scene just over a decade ago?

Neither Joseph Smith nor any of his contemporaries said anything on record about D&C 125:3 revealing the true location of the ancient city of Zarahemla. There is also not a single reference to D&C 125 in general conference or any other published sermon of a general authority of the Church.

Likewise, not a single mainstream Latter-day Saint commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants has made this connection. I happen to have these four commentaries in my personal library; none of them make the connection that Heartlanders have:

  • Hyrum M. Smith and Janne M. Sjödahl, A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants (1919). They say nothing about any connection between the Zarahemla in Iowa and the Zarahemla of the Book of Mormon.
  • Boyd W. Brewster Jr., Doctrine and Covenants Encyclopedia (Bookcraft, 1988). He has an entry for “Zarahemla” on page 656, but says nothing about it being the same city as the one in the Book of Mormon.
  • Stephen E. Robinson and H. Dean Garrett, A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, volume 4 (Deseret Book, 2005). These authors explicitly state on page 200, “Why the Lord chose Zarahemla, a Book of Mormon name, for the area is unknown.”
  • Glen M. Leonard, “Zarahemla,” in Doctrine and Covenants Reference Companion (Deseret Book, 2012), 740. He writes, “The name refers to the ‘great city Zarahemla’ (Hel. 1:18) and to the Mulekite leader Zarahemla named in the Book of Mormon (Omni 1:13–18; Mosiah 25:2).” See also, in the same book, Alexander L. Baugh, “Historical context and overview of Doctrine and Covenants 125,”840–41. This author says nothing about any connection between the ancient city and the one in Joseph Smith’s time.

Like so many other heterodox Heartlander claims, their strained interpretation of D&C 125:3 is yet another example of “They were all out of step but Jim!

“There is nothing phony here except the millions of dollars Mesoamerican Book of Mormon hoaxers has taken from the church and its members.”

What “millions of dollars” are you referring to, Opie? Who is forking over this money and who is raking it in? Which Mesoamerican Book of Mormon scholar is living the high life, sitting on a fat stack of cash?

(Compare this to Rod Meldrum’s semiannual Book of Mormon Expos: The amount of money changing hands there for Heartlander products borders on the obscene.)

“The events recorded in the Book of Mormon took place in the eastern US and not in Southern Mexico or Guatemala.‘

You’re certainly free to believe that, as long as you follow the counsel of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve “not to advocate those personal theories in any setting or manner that would imply either prophetic or Church support for those theories.” Heartlanders have continually violated that counsel, though, and I don’t expect them to stop any time soon.

—Peter Pan

11 comments:

  1. If ancient Zarahemla was on the west bank of the Mississippi opposite Nauvoo, it should be a simple matter for them to prove now herewith, and back up the assertion. Sink a shovel in Iowa, and bring up the remnants of a literate civilization predating the Mississippian culture by at least 1200 years. Easy peasy.

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  2. There is absolutely nothing in the revelation now known as section 125 of the Doctrine and Covenants which indicates anything about the ancient location of the city of Zarahemla. The Lord says nothing about why he chose that name for the Iowa stake so anything we say is speculation and should not be treated as revelation. In discussing this claim, however, Matthew Roper suggested one reason why the Lord may have done so and which make sense to me. In an article published several years ago he wrote:

    The name Zarahemla would have reminded the Saints of the Book of Mormon and invited them to liken their experiences to those of Lehi’s people. When the Saints were driven from Missouri, they had to flee from danger and persecution. One of several places they found refuge was in Iowa. In the Book of Mormon, groups of refugees also found safety and refuge in Zarahemla. It was a place where those who believed in the scriptures and in the words of the living prophets could gather and receive protection, just as the Latter-day Saints who believed in the words of Joseph Smith and the words of Book of Mormon prophets could settle. As such, the name seems appropriate. Both Manti and Zarahemla were Book of Mormon cities, but perhaps significantly, they were fortified cites as well. The Lord characterized the first stake in Kirtland as a “strong hold” (D&C 64:21), a term that evokes the Iowa settlement’s namesake in the Book of Mormon (Helaman 1:20), a place that at times was well fortified (3 Nephi 3:23–26). Of course, most stakes in the past and today are not named after Book of Mormon or even biblical locations, but perhaps the Lord thought it fitting in Joseph Smith’s day to give these two settlements — Manti in Missouri and Zarahemla in Iowa — names that would remind them and future readers of what a stake of Zion is intended to be: a defense and a refuge for the Saints (D&C 115:6). This admittedly reflects my own thinking and speculation, but it makes more sense than an approach that tries to force a revelation and geographical interpretation out of a passage where none exist.

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  3. Roper's article, which has a lot of good information can be found here https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/the-treason-of-the-geographers-mythical-mesoamerican-conspiracy-and-the-book-of-mormon/

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  4. Thomas Ferguson was an amateur whose bad assumptions and delusions of grandeur led to his faith dying when his unjustified expectations weren't met. Heartlanders are amateurs whose bad assumptions and delusions of grandeur will lead to...

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  5. I'd also like to add that the Heartland setting is used in anti works such as the CES Letter to try and disprove the Book of Mormon. Granted, the map Runnells put together is the worst possible map that nobody could possibly make in their right mind after reading about the internal map Mormon uses and no Heartlander believes in Runnells' proposed "map," but the Heartland setting is often used because of the inherent weaknesses that it provides and it is easier to form a caricature of what we believe than allow stronger evidence to ever set foot on the battle stage (by effectively trying to change where the battle is). As sad as it is that one scholar in Mesoamerica put too much trust in what he thought he should find rather than be open to adapting his views based on the evidence that was extant (though granted I haven't looked much into Thomas Ferguson's testimony myself and feel I should stay out of it), I see Heartlanders in that same boat and heading to that same waterfall. What happens when Wayne May's dig comes up empty again? What about next year, or the next? By trying to declare revelation where the Lord hasn't, you find yourself in dangerous waters.

    In contrast, I have met quite a few scholars by now whose faith has only been strengthened by the evidences that have been found in Mesoamerica, as has mine. The problem clearly isn't in the location, but rather in how we react to what is discovered and our ability to change our own ideas based on such. My testimony doesn't depend on archaeology, never has, never will. But it certainly doesn't hurt when tangible evidence comes up every now and again.

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  6. Not sure that T.S. Ferguson has any relevance to discussions today. He has been dead for a long time and his books that we published back in the 1940s and 1950s have been out of print for year. I suspect few members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints care or have even heard of him. Professor John L. Sorenson, who did know Ferguson had this to say about him:

    "Larson implies that Ferguson was one of the "scholars and intellectuals in the Church" and that "his study" was conducted along the lines of reliable scholarship in the "field of archaeology." Those of us with personal experience with Ferguson and his thinking knew differently. He held an undergraduate law degree but never studied archaeology or related disciplines at a professional level, although he was self-educated in some of the literature of American archaeology. He held a naive view of "proof," perhaps related to his law practice where one either "proved" his case or lost the decision; compare the approach he used in his simplistic lawyerly book One Fold and One Shepherd. His associates with scientific training and thus more sophistication in the pitfalls involving intellectual matters could never draw him away from his narrow view of "research." (For example, in April 1953, when he and I did the first archaeological reconnaissance of central Chiapas, which defined the Foundation's work for the next twenty years, his concern was to ask if local people had found any figurines of "horses," rather than to document the scores of sites we discovered and put on record for the first time.) His role in "Mormon scholarship" was largely that of enthusiast and publicist, for which we can be grateful, but he was neither scholar nor analyst.

    Ferguson was never an expert on archaeology and the Book of Mormon (let alone on the book of Abraham, about which his knowledge was superficial). He was not one whose careful "study" led him to see greater light, light that would free him from Latter-day Saint dogma, as Larson represents. Instead he was just a layman, initially enthusiastic and hopeful but eventually trapped by his unjustified expectations, flawed logic, limited information, perhaps offended pride, and lack of faith in the tedious research that real scholarship requires. The negative arguments he used against the Latter-day Saint scriptures in his last years display all these weaknesses.

    Larson, like others who now wave Ferguson's example before us as a case of emancipation from benighted Mormon thinking, never faces the question of which Tom Ferguson was the real one. Ought we to respect the hard-driving younger man whose faith-filled efforts led to a valuable major research program, or should we admire the double-acting cynic of later years, embittered because he never hit the jackpot on, as he seems to have considered it, the slot-machine of archaeological research? I personally prefer to recall my bright-eyed, believing friend, not the aging figure Larson recommends as somehow wiser."

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  7. "All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again."

    From J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

    Jack

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  8. Well I came here because I was looking for a Hugh Nibley quote and WOW. A site dedicated to the destruction of Johnathon Neville :) Haha. Sorry I mean no disrespect. I've met Neville and he is quite the spitfire.

    I do have to say after being in multiple camps over the past 30 years that Johnathon, Rod Meldrum, and Wayne May all give North America a bad name. Any chance of scholarship or a serious look at the great lakes area has been lost due to the "heartland" movement and their tactics.

    I've spoken to Rod about his absurd claims of DNA and "praying to know where it happened." I've spoken to Wayne about supporting clear frauds like the Kinderhook plates (to his credit I found Wayne more reasonable and didn't see the crazed look in his eyes like Rod) but he still would not budge, and then of course Neville. Sigh it's not a pretty picture these guys make.

    I started looking at the great lakes back in 2000 and when I served a mission in Ohio. I keep my mind open, but I HATE what this movement has done to north america theories. I tend to get grouped in with heartlanders nowadays when that could not be farther from the truth. I really hope something changes soon.

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  9. It was several years ago that BYU Studies carried an article in which the author spoke with an archeologist who worked in upstate New York including the Palmyra area. The archeologist noted that the lands around the Hill Cumorah were way below average in any evidence of pre-columbian inhabitants. Neither weapon points nor the waste from making them, indicating that it was never the site where people had gathered for years in preparation for a massive battle of tens of thousands.

    It seems to me that anyone who really thought the place where Moroni hid the gold plates was the place where the final battle took place, would invest the time and money to conduct their own archeological digs on private land around the hill, and look for evidence of a massive battle circa 385 AD, including tools, fires, food animal bones, and the remains of combatants. A site with a hundred thousand people living there would have been the largest community in North America. Using techniques like LIDAR and ground penetrating radar to find ancient landforms would be appropriate tools to locate productive dig sites. Focussing on the modern Cumorah would make it fairly economical to use those technologies to test the theory identifying the modern location with the ancient one using that name. Surely the advocates for the Heartland Hypothesis have sufficient funding for some real archeological research to test their theory.

    As to Zarahemla Iowa being identified with the ancient Zarahemla, there is simply no way that the Mississippi could be the River Sidon described in the Book of Alma, which could be easily forded in a running battle between Nephite and Lamanite armies. But the advocates are welcome to put their money where their mouth is and do some real archeology at the site to test their hypothesis.

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  10. With respect to Ferguson's disappointment with the results of archeology in MesoAmerica and his loss of faith in the Book of Mormon, it seems to me that the Heartland theorists are following in Ferguson's path of great expectations without a firm foundation, such that if they don't find archeological confirmation of their tgeories, they will be setting people up to follow Ferguson into disappointment in the Book of Mormon rather than a realization of the fallibility of the human speculators. If they are telling people to place their faith in finding evidence of horses in 30 AD America, they are making precisely the dame errors as Ferguson. The Opie comment impkies that Ferguson was simpky barking up the wrong tree, and he would have found what he was looking for if he had searched in New York and Iowa. I am afraid that the followers of Rod Meldrum will become like women who accepted a proposal of marriage on the basis of the suitor's testimony that he had a revelation that God wanted them to wed. When she is disappointed with the results, her faith in God and revelation could be jeopardized.

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